RSS Copyright Protection

With unscrupulous individuals and companies using RSS feeds to facilitate automated plagiarism, many bloggers have begun taking measures to ensure that their feeds aren’t being misused. Though these precautions make perfect sense given the current copyright climate on the Web, they can often have unintended consequences.

The most common technique is to add a footer to all entries in an RSS feed. Such footers usually include a link back to the original entry, some notice of copyright, a warning that all non-personal use of the feed is illegal and, often times, an email address to contact should infringement be found.

An example of this can be found on the feed

for the blog “Tom Raftery’s I.T. Views“, which uses a WordPress plugin created by Angsuman Chakraborty, and reads as follows:

“This Feed is for personal non-commercial use only. If you are not reading this material in your news aggregator, the site you are looking at is guilty of copyright infringement. Please contact [email withheld] so we can take legal action immediately.”

The idea is that this text will not appear on the site itself, just on the RSS feed. Any Web site that tries to plagiarize the original content by using the RSS feed will be in for a rude awakening when they’re accused of copyright infringement and links back to the original article are provided without their knowledge.

It’s a nice trap, but unfortunately it snares a lot of legitimate users as well.

Simply put, RSS feeds are designed to be used. They are created to be read. However, when lawyers aren’t completely certain where the line between personal and commercial use is drawn, we can’t expect laypeople to immediately understand it. Also, not everyone is going to be completely certain what a “news aggregator” is, especially since a lot of Web sites, such as Bloglines, serve the same function.

To make matters more complicated, blog search engines, such as Technorati, use RSS feeds to parse blogs and wind up indexing these hidden footers as well. In fact, Technorati was how I first discovered these footers.

Another, albeit much less common trick, is to use HTML, Javascript or another Web language to frustrate sites that try to steal the feed by making the text very small, making it blink or turn into hideous colors. This idea is that text-only news readers will skip the code and go straight to the copy while Web pages pirating the content will be reading almost unusable content.

Unfortunately, most RSS readers now use HTML and many can interpret Javascript and other advanced Web languages. In the end, you’re just more likely to frustrate a potential reader than a plagiarist. It’s really that simple.

Finally, many sites have taken to only displaying part of their articles in their feed, requiring the end user to click a link to read the rest of the piece. While this definitely defeats mass plagiarism, it shifts the burden to the end user, requiring them to visit the site to read the full article and defeating much of the purpose of an RSS feed. Many readers and bloggers alike don’t find that solution acceptable.

But even though the HTML trickery doesn’t make much sense and summary feeds come with some very serious limitations, the use of footers has neither drawback. Even though I disagree with the language many of these footers take, especially the default language set up by the aforementioned plugin, the concept is very sound. In fact, I’ve taken to using it myself.

However, rather than posting a strong but confusing copyright warning, I’ve added a footer to every entry that brings any reuse of my work into compliance with my Creative Commons license.

If you look into the footer of every entry in the RSS feed, you’ll find that it says, “Copyright 2005 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License. Some Rights Reserved.”

Even if someone reuses my feed with plagiarism as their intention, they’ll still be compliant with my license unless they manually remove the attribution. At that point, however, there’s little doubt that the copyright infringement was willful and courts would have a much easier time handling such a case.

If you prefer a more traditional copyright license, you could then follow a similar approach but, instead of mentioning the CC license, you could simply say “No Republication or Redistribution Allowed”. You can also have the option of going ahead with the default message and hope that no one gets scared or confused.

Finally, rather than posting your email address and hoping that good neighbor will write you to inform you about a potential infringement, which is highly unlikely, it makes much more sense to place a hidden image into the footer of your feed, a 1×1 transparent image for example, and regularly check to see which sites refer to the image.

Though it’s not a perfect system as many plagiarists will simply strip all of the images out of the post, it will catch far more than hoping for a friendly tip from a stranger. Besides, when combined with a Google Alert radar, it will produce far more results than any other method available today.

In the end, these footers are just another tool to combating a specific kind of plagiarism. It’s part of the solution, but not the answer by itself.


Stay tuned tomorrow when I’ll show you how to add these footers to a variety of blog types.

Further Reading:

I also strongly recommend Angsuman Chakraborty’s article on protecting your RSS feed.

[tags]Plagiarism, RSS, Really Simple Syndication, Copyright Protections, Atom[/tags]

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