Feedpass: A Cause for Conern?

Feedpass, a service from Jim Woolley, has created a  great deal of talk in the Web 2.0 community, most of it with great unease. Mike Arrington at TechCrunch called it a service that "does nothing" and "leaves a bad taste" in his mouth (though he did say he was not "outraged" by the service) and Pete Cashmore at Mashable said Feedpass "can make money from your content with very little effort" and one where the "added utilitiy (over Feedburner) is minimal".

These articles have been a part of a larger debate about the service, which has been marked with unease, confusion and anger. However, things came to a head when Alec Saunders used Feedpass and Feedburner to claim Arrington’s feed for himself in order to expose a flaw in both systems that made the misuse possible.

This, in turn, has sparked a second debate about the nature of RSS and, possibly, whether RSS itself is flawed and vulnerable.

What Feedpass Does

Feedpass’ service is relatively simple in nature. They provide "landing pages" (sample) that make it easy for individuals to subscribe to your RSS feed. This concept is similar to Feedburner’s landing pages (see PT’s here) and other sites that provide subscriber-friendly pages.

The service is mainly targeted at helping novice’s subscribe to RSS feeds. If you use RSS daily, you probably don’t need Feedpass, or anyone else, to tell you what an RSS feed is or how to subscribe to one. However, if you’re relatively new to RSS or want to learn more about RSS reader services, a service like Feedpass might be able to help you along.

However, what makes Feedpass controversial is that it allows anyone to create a landing page for any feed, whether they are the owner or not. Once a landing page is created, the owner of the page can then profit from it by using an Google Adsense account. According to Feedpass, users who don’t own the feed they’re syndicating get 1/3 of exposures and Feedpass gets the rest (Note: If the blog is claimed, 1/3 of impressions on the non-owner’s landing page are diverted to the author). Content owners, if they claim their blog, get 2/3 of the ad images on their landing pages and Feedpass gets the remaining 1/3.

Many bloggers, uncofortable with the idea of strangers monetizing their content, began to rail on the service. One blogger, Mark Evans, referred to the service as "Vultures" and others chimed in with less than flattering views on the service.

Others rose to the defense of Feedpass. KBCafe was quick to point out that other services, such as Technorati, make money off other people’s feeds and receive no hatred. Some gave very positive reviews of Feedpass’ services and encouraged other bloggers to use it.

Clearly though, Feedpass started a debate about both its service and RSS feeds in general. A debate that will not die down anytime soon.

"I’ve Stolen Mike Arrington’s Feed"

The issue came to a head when Alec Saunders posted that he had used a combination of Feedburner and Feedpass to not only create a Feedpass landing page for Techcrunch, but to claim the blog as well, earning the full 2/3 exposure and leaving nothing for Mike Arrington.

Though the hack wasn’t malicious, it was instead a proof of concept, it did create some very real worry that a user might take the same steps to illegally profit from other people’s feeds. This prompted Feedpass to take action, temporarily removing ads from the landing pages and blocking the creation of landing pages for Feedburner feeds. Those steps, however, were quickly undone and both ads and Feedburner feeds made their return to Feedpass.

Nonetheless, much of the debate shifted away from Feedpass and onto RSS in general. As the situation pointed out, RSS makes it simple to lift content, for both good and bad uses and many services, not just Feedpass, are vulnerable.

So Why Feedpass?

If Feedburner can be used to monetize the feeds of others and most of the issues raised by Feedpass are not exclusive to the service, then why did it get so much hostile treatment?

As I was browsing through the entries against Feedpass, the same set of arguments kept arising.

  1. Encouraging others to monetize other’s content without permission: While most agree that Feedpass and the content owner should be able to profit from the landing pages, a much greater amount of disagreement has started over third party’s rights to do so. Though other services, such as Feedburner, can be used to that end, none actively encourage it that I’ve found. In fact, Feedburner’s terms of service states clearly that "You represent and warrant that you have all necessary rights in and to the Content." That seems to be a major point of difference in the two services.
  2. Opt-Out Rather Than Opt-In: In order to prevent  your content from being used in Feedpass, you have to opt out of the service by contacting Feedpass directly via email. To opt out of other services, theoretically, all you have to do is not register. Of course, as anyone who deals with plagiarism can tell you, terms of services mean little to those with evil intents. Also, blog search engines such as Technorati and Icerocket are opt-out instead of opt-in as well.
  3. Limited Usefulness: With Feedburner one gets a similar landing page with similar buttons and information and no ads. All Feedburner feeds link to a useful Feed 101 page that offers similar information. Whether you think that Feedburner or Feedpass has a better page is a matter of personal opinion, but both do offer similar items.

While it’s true that all of these arguments have potential counters, many of which are listed above, they are the reasons given for shunning Feedpass and thus must be discussed.

A Quick Word on Fair Use

As a side note to the debate, many have debated whether or not Feedpass’ use of content constitutes fair use.

Since fair use can only be determined by a judge, which would require someone first taking a case to court, laypeople such as myself can only guess.

Two of the four elements of fair use, the amount of work reused, which is only titles and four lines from the post, and the affect on the market, which is actually promotional to the work, both favor Feedpass. But the character of the use, which many consider the most important element of fair use, works against it as the use is commercial and neither educational nor critical. The fourth element, the nature of the copyrighted work will depend heavily on the entries used.

It would be a very interesting case for a court to decide and, frankly, could come down to which side is better represented.

Then again, that can be said about many legal cases.

My Thoughts

I have to agree with others that Feedpass leaves a bad taste in my mouth. However, much of my initial rage has subsided after I’ve looked deeper into the product and spent time thinking about how vulnerable other products are to the exact same behavior.

My biggest complaint with Feedpass, and what I feel separates it from Technorati and others, is the implied relationship with the original content. No one who visits Google or Technorati believes that those sites have a relationship with mine. However, when you see Feedpass logo next to my content and my graphics, it at least appears that there is an existing relationship, even when there might not be.

This could, conceivably, be a trademark issue for blogs with trademarked names. Admittedly though, my knowledge of trademark law is weak.

Of course, this problem could be easily resolved by making the service opt-in. If bloggers registered and signed a very standard agreement, all of these potential legal issues and uneasiness would go away.

That, in the end, is what makes me unwilling to jump completely on the anti-Feedpress bandwagon. The service, potentially, has some usefulness for bloggers. Though the landing pages aren’t wholly interesting, the ability for a blogger to, for free, financially reward others for promoting their feed is exciting, especially considering they could make a little bit of money themselves in the process.

However, that enthusiasm has to be tempered by some of Mike’s original questions. Though I haven’t looked into it, it’s hard to imagine that ads on feed landing pages generate a large number of clicks.

Landing pages are designed to help people subscribe to a feed quickly and move them on. Unlike searches, where the user doesn’t necessarily know what he wants and well-placed ads might be able to sway them, users know what they want on feed landing pages and it’s not found in the ads.

Those concerns aside, there is potential for the service. It might take some rethinking of both the business model and the service’s role on the Web, but a potential partnership between viewers and bloggers to promote a feed could be exciting.

Until those concerns are addressed though, I’ve opted out of the service, a request graciously and promptly handled, and talked a little bit with Jim Woolley about my concerns. He addressed many of them in his reply back to me and said that he was open, at some point, to changing his model but that he wanted to "play this out for a bit and see what the stance of the real blogging community is… not just the A-List bloggers who may already feel that they’ve got enough visibility."

In that regard, I have to admit, it will be interesting to see what happens as word about Feedpass, and the concerns surrounding it, continues to spread.

[tags]Copyright, Content Theft, RSS, Feedpass, Feedburner[/tags]

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