Call Me a Contributor

Usually, getting a job as a writer at a magazine involves a lengthy application process that tests pushes a writer’s skills to its limits and is a shining moment of a budding writer’s career. It is the culmination of years of education, practice and thankless toil.

However, there are some new “magazines” that take a very different approach to acquiring new writers. Their application process is so easy that, most of the people that pass it don’t even know that they’ve been hired. In fact, the only qualifications required for becoming a regular contributor to these magazines is a regularly updated blog and a full RSS feed.

These sites, however, have been very cold shoulders in the blogging world and have been referred to by many as the next wave of splogging, automatically generated collections targeted not at search engines, but humans. They’re sites making good money of other people’s content while turning their victims, seemingly into willing contributors.

The Big Idea

The premise is pretty simple. Pick a topic on which several reputable blogs are already covering, grab their RSS feeds pull them together in one blog with one feed and credit your sources, being sure to give them a title such as “contributor” or “writer” to make it appear that you have permission.

The end result is a site that has far more information and provides a greater deal of convenience than any one of the sites lifted from. All of the discussion and follow up, theoretically, can take place at the new site, A casual reader has no reason whatsoever to visit the original sites and will not think ill of doing so, after all, it appears that these writers willingly contributed their material to be used in just this way.

After all, why should anyone repeatedly check several sites or feeds when one has all of the same information at the same place and at the same time.

Whether it’s called RSS feed aggregating or splogging, It takes precious eyeballs (not to mention search engine results) away from the original site and move them to the new one where either ads or links to other ad-ridden pages await.

This has left many bloggers very upset and has sent several big-name bloggers down the proverbial warpath.

The CC License Strikes Again

This new type of splogging is not, technically, plagiarism. All posts in the magizine are meticulously credited, usually with links back to the original author. The lie revolves around the relationship between the author and the aggregating site. By representing the author as a willing participant, visitors are less likely to even look for the attribution line and might even mistake the aggregate site as being his or her actual home page. Furthermore, by lifting straight from the RSS feed, these sites give no incentive to visit anyway.

Many say that this goes against the very notion of the remix culture. The concept of reuse is supposed to help both sites, allowing one to grow with fresh and useful content while the other to gain exposure and new readers. Clearly, this relationship only benefits one site, the sploggers’.

The problem, however, is that the Creative Commons Licenses so many bloggers use actually permit this kind of behavior. As I’ve said before, nearly all of the more liberal CC Licenses permit aggregating and place no limits on quantity and only place a handful of restrictions on the format that attribution can take. Generally speaking, as long as attribution includes a link back to the source, the license leaves everything else up in the air.

Clearly this is another challenge that the Creative Commons Organization will have to overcome if they want their licenses to remain valid in the age of content theft. In the meantime though, many Webmasters are left to fend for themselves as they continue to unwittingly “contribute” their content to people they’ve never met and that have only their own interests in mind.

However, there are steps that can be taken to stop this.

Fighting Back

If you want to protect your content from unwanted aggregating, you have to be proactive with your measures. Waiting until your content is stolen could be too late, especially if you have a liberal Creative Commons License that limits your recourse.

Nonetheless, taking steps now can effectively block or limit the ability of such sites from limiting???? your content, restricting reuse to humans who are interested in your work, not just robots trying to fill fly-by-night magazines.

Add Footers to Your Feed: Using either available plugins, template modifications or Feedburner options, consider adding a footer to your feed. This footer should contain all pertinent copyright information and make it clear that the site scraping the feed is not the original source. For tips on this, please see my original article on the subject.

Consider a New License: Until the Creative Commons Organization is able to catch up with the new set of social ills, you may want to consider creating your own copyright license which permits limited reuse of individual works while forbidding feed scraping and other, less desirable, forms of reuse. Though you won’t have the benefit of the Creative Commons legal minds or their legalese license, if you are clear about what you want and are very detailed in regards to it, any license you write should hold up.

Look Into Truncated Feeds: Though the debate about full vs. truncated feeds will go on for a long, long time. Truncating a feed is a good way to stop most RSS scrapers. Though some high end tools can already defeat this by pulling directly from your site, these are beyond the reach of your average splogger. It might only be a short-term solution, but it can help.

Link To Yourself Regularly: Be sure to regularly link new posts to old ones. Not only is this a good idea in general, since it motivates new readers to explore your site, but it also helps protect against plagiarism and feed scraping. All you have to do is follow up on any unusual referring links and, when you refer to these other articles as being your own, it makes a strong connection between you and your site that can’t be shaken off by a mere title.

Offer Something Better: Finally, offer something at your site that can’t be obtained through RSS scraping. While comments and other discussion tools are great, they are standard with almost any blogging software and will be found on any site scraping yours. Consider adding content around your blog such as guides and essays that aren’t likely to be scraped. This added value can go a long way to motivating readers from forgoing convenience to actually visit your site.

Final Thoughts

In the end, this will most likely be one of the fastest-growing forms of plagiarism in the coming months. It will be a big issue to watch in 2006 as more and more unscrupulous individuals work to populate sites quickly using readily available content while seeking to avoid the scold of plagiarism and copyright infringement.

No matter what happens though, I will be here to report it and monitor things as they change.

[tags]Plagiarism, Content Theft, Sploging, Splogs, RSS, Aggregation, Copyright, Copyright Law[/tags]

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