WordPress and Press This: Pressing Copyright Boundaries?

press-this-logoPress This is a bookmarklet that’s been a part of WordPress since version 2.6, which was released in 2008. The idea is fairly straightforward, you drag the bookmarklet to your browser and, when you visit a page you want to share, you select a passage of text and hit “Press This”, which then creates a new post in your blog with the text and a link back to the source content.

Despite being around for seven years, Press This has not seen a lot of widespread use nor is it really a “forward” feature of WordPress. Not only is a fairly buried feature, found under the “Available Tools” page in the WordPress backend, many, including myself, have never used it at all.

However, the tool is in the process of getting a revamp for version 4.2 of WordPress and, with it, new attention is being paid to it, both by developers and users alike.

One of those talking about it is Daniel Bachhuber at Hand Built who left a comment on GitHub saying.

I’m not the best person to comment on this, but it seems like building a tool that automatically scrapes copyrighted materials should have an upfront discussion about said legal implications, and whether this is something we should promote.

This, in turn, kicked off a discussion about exactly that, one that included Jeff Chandler at WP Tavern and Richard Best at WP and Legal Stuff, a blog about the intersection of law and WordPress.

So is Press This pushing copyright boundaries and, if so, what can the new tool version do to alleviate the problems? I decided to (finally) take a closer look at Press This and see what I thought.

What Press This Is

Press This, in both the current and alpha version, is a bookmarklet that you install in your browser. It functions like a small program and is designed to make it easy to blog about or reference other sites on your WordPress site.

The way it works is simple. When you click “Press This”, the application automatically creates a post in your WordPress backend based on the page you’re visiting. For the purpose of this demonstration, I’ll be looking at this post on Mashable about a recent policy change at Reddit.

If you just click the button without selecting any text, your post is basically just the title of the page your on and a link to it, like this:

pressthis1

If you highlight text in the article before clicking the bookmarklet, that text is then added to the post itself.

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Either way you can click the add image button.

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And be presented with an array of images from the page that you will then load on to your server for the post.

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This loading of images from the source, which in the current version hyperlinks to the original image, is one of the most controversial elements of Press This. Between it and its ability to copy text, Press This is a very simple way to pull text and image content from other sites into your own.

The new version, which is still pre-release provide several changes including:

  • Easier Image Importing: Image importing is easier and clearer.
  • Blockquoting: Imported text is now automatically placed within a blockquote.
  • Open Graph: If nothing is highlighted, the plugin looks at the Open Graph and other metadata to determine what should be quoted and what images should be used.
  • Mobile Friendly: The new version of Press This will work on cell phones and other mobile devices without much effort.
  • Audio and Video Embeds: Also makes automatic suggestions for audio and video embeds

Those improvements, plus overall interface and speed improvements, are the main benefits of the new version that’s being tested.

However, as others have noted, either version can be used to easily infringe content. This led others to wonder if, perhaps, users Automattic and the others who work on WordPress should distance themselves from it for legal and ethical reasons.

Behind the scenes, it appears Automattic has said that they are comfortable with the legality of Press This. One blogger, an international lawyer, came up with his answer.

Is Press This Legal?

Attorney Richard Best posted a lengthy and multi-national analysis of Press This. For the whole, I’m going to lean on it because it is very thorough and well thought out.

In general, he concluded the following:

In my view, no matter which test you apply, those behind Press This could not be held liable for authorising an exclusive act or for contributory copyright infringement merely by building it into WordPress core and thereby making the tool available. I’d go further and say “no way at all!”

He goes on to say that, since Press This can be used for significant non-infringing uses in addition to infringing uses, that its makers shouldn’t be held responsible for contributory copyright infringement. This argument is well in align with the Sony Corp v. Universal City Studios case, commonly referred to as the “Betamax” ruling.

In that case, the Supreme Court found that Betamax home recording systems had significant non-infringing uses and, therefore, its creators were not liable for infringements carried out with it.

However, Best’s analysis overlooks didn’t include the most recent and possibly most relevant U.S. case for Press This, the Grokster ruling. In that case, Grokster, a file sharing company, was found liable for inducement of copyright infringement.

The Grokster case hinged on the fact that the software was routinely advertised for infringing purposes, including as a replacement for Napster and it was found that, regardless of whether or not it had significant non-infringing uses, the company behind it was liable.

To be clear, this doesn’t directly impact Press This. To my knowledge, Automattic and other WordPress developers do not advertise Press This for infringing purposes (if they promote it at all). However, it does make it clear that those responsible for Press This should be careful as to how they promote it and to encourage legitimate use of it.

How to Improve Press This

Unlike a service like Snip.ly, where every use without permission is likely an infringement of some sort, Press This does have significant non-infringing uses.

However, the tool does have a great deal of potential to be abused. While it’s unlikely that spammers and scrapers will start using it to grab droves of content (it simply isn’t efficient for that and there are better tools out there), it is possible that naive or new bloggers might run afoul of copyright law and either anger other creators or even find themselves in a copyright dispute.

But while Press This shouldn’t be forced to prevent people from making deliberate bad decisions, a few tweaks can definitely help stop most accidents.

Those changes include:

  1. Blockquoting Text: This change has already been implemented in the test version, but it makes sense. Text that’s copied from the site being pulled from should be put in block quotes, both to ensure it is properly attributed and to discourage the use of excessive text.
  2. Limiting Text Use: While there’s no hard and fast rule for how much text a person can use before it becomes an infringement, there’s little reason for someone to be copying hundreds or thousands of words of text at a time. Limiting the text that can be quoted makes sense. Even if the limit isn’t a firm one and only comes with a warning, it would alert users that, perhaps, they should think of using less.
  3. Limiting Image Size/End Hotlinking: Right now, when Press This pulls images in from the original site, there’s no limit to the image size. For example, going back to the Mashable story above, Press This pulls down the full large image, hotlinking it from the source. While the hot linking is disturbing, so is the needless use of full images when a thumbnail would work fine. It’s better to host a thumbnail on your server and link to the original page with the image (as well as the text link) than to embed full sized images, especially as hotlines.
  4. Consider Creative Commons: One situation that the text limitations could go out the window is with Creative Commons Licensed work. Since CC licenses have a machine-readable component that could be detected by Press This, the tool could be used to detect and use CC-licensed material and generate compliant attribution notices. However, this would have to be done with care as many sites, this one included, have CC-licensed text but images under a different license.
  5. Clear Warnings: One of the things Best mentioned is that Press This could easily add warnings to its information encouraging users to be responsible with it. This would not only reduce infringement, but also help protect its developers.

The goal of all of this is not to 100% prevent Press This from being used for infringement, but to turn Press This into a tool that steers people to legitimate (or at least more legitimate) use of other people’s work.

While it may seem to be a small victory, given the confusion that exists online, it can make a great deal of difference to those who use it.

Bottom Line

From a legal standpoint, Press This probably has a great deal of protection. While it needs to be careful how it markets itself (as does just about every product that can possibly used to infringe), it does have significant non-infringing uses and any infringement that is done through it would, most likely, be the sole fault of the person who used it.

That being said, Automattic and the developers of Press This have a great opportunity here to turn Press This not just into a tool that makes sharing easier, but a tool that can encourage proper content use.

One of the things I’ve liked best about the WordPress community is that they haven’t just done what’s legal or necessary, but what’s right. They have always been invested in making the Internet better and here is another way they can do it.

So hopefully, with Press This getting an overhaul, they’ll take the chance to do just that and not only improve the tool, but improve the Web a little bit by steering people away from infringement and more toward cooperative uses of content.

Big thanks to Victor Miller at The Word in Print for alerting me to this story.