You think it, we own it

25 November 2005

Presumably as it falls in with Jeff Jarvis' view of the world that anything remixed or mashed-up by the people has to be good, the former mainstream-media editor turned citizen-everything advocate, has declared the Washington Post's decision to launch a remix page as a thoroughly good thing. Of course, he chides the WaPo for not going far enough and putting up the contents of reporters' notebooks, lunch receipts and innermost thoughts for the world's citizens to pore over and mash up as they see fit. But he sees the newspaper's effort as a "great first step" with the "perfect attitude".

I presume Jarvis has not actually read the terms of service that the WaPo has applied. The newspaper is not being entirely altruistic about offering up RSS feeds for a bit of Web 2.0-style remixing. Like the first commenter at the remix terms of use page, I understand that the newspaper would like to retain copyright. However, the third condition is perhaps pushing the idea of making the world your serf a little far. Not only do not get anything from the WaPo for doing something funky with its news feeds, "Washingtonpost.com may incorporate your ideas into future projects it develops". The commenter, quite charitably, would just like some attribution. I think the ability to negotiate terms of use with the newspaper would be nicer. On the bright side, at least the company has not demanded indemnification against any possible legal nastiness, unlike organisations such as CNN. Not yet, at any rate.

On closer inspection, even in return for giving up your first-born, you still only seem to be able to access RSS feeds. There is no direct API as yet. Gotta hand it to The Man.

3 Comments

I guess I don't really understand your argument here, beyond the cliche "Big Newspaper/Corporation Must Be Evil" logic.

The Post isn't demanding *code* or any other parts of actual mashup *implementations*; it's just saying that it may borrow ideas for its own use to improve the site. For example, it might add an interactive news quiz to its own site, or a map interface to news. Frankly, I think the policy is quite lenient.

Speaking as a mashup maker myself (chicagocrime.org), I'll say this: If the Chicago Police Department decided to add Google Maps to its crime data, I would not feel in any way violated that they'd be "stealing" my idea from chicagocrime.org to mashup Google Maps with crime data. I made the mashup because it was a fun challenge and presented a different view of crime data.

(Disclaimer: I work at washingtonpost.com, but I speak for myself in this comment.)

I don't believe big newspapers are evil: they are a business much like any other. I personally don't buy into the "bad-old MSM" argument. I felt I was having more of a dig at the "look, a mash-up, how cool of the MSM that is" culture that does not look any further into what might be happening. I feel it is always worth looking at the small print when businesses make forays into user-generated content because some of those clauses have serious repercussions for the user, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

To my mind, the clause smacked too much of the employment clauses that demand a worker's thoughts during their time at a company, whether those thoughts were on company time or not.

The terms offered by the Washington Post may well be lenient, compared with other sites. However, I was struck by a couple of things on the Post Remix blog. The first entry advertised several applications of the RSS feeds that seem to have been built before Post Remix existed as a blog and before the terms were posted. One day later, the terms of service arrive. I do not believe the people cited in the first Post Remix were aware of the desire by the newspaper to use their ideas based simply on the fact they had generated non-commercial applications from the RSS feeds. The comment from Jacob Kaplan-Moss suggests that he was a little surprised by the insertion of the additional terms.

If there was a licence to click-through to an API, as with the Chicago Police department, then there would be less of an issue: I can choose to agree or go elsewhere. With the site structured as it is, it seems that anyone building something interesting with RSS, and obeying fair-use principles, could suddenly find the newspaper simply taking their idea once it had been proven. Maybe for a lot of people that does not matter; maybe that will prove to be the culture of mash-ups that the community chooses to accept. But for someone who wants to experiment with RSS with the ultimate aim of building a substantial application, that may be a step too far for them. For example, is a search engine based on RSS feeds a mash-up? It's a big mash-up but it involves the ability to process other people's content.

As there is no way for a user to actively agree to the terms on RSS usage, beyond what is enshrined in copyright law, maybe the terms as written on Post Remix have no legal standing in practice. But, if you have a good application that the newspaper copies just because you made use of some RSS feeds to test it, it would be troublesome for a small player to contest. If it were me, I would prefer to not take that chance and play with some other company's material while I worked out my ideas.

Chris - yes, I was surprised, but not really all that much. Fact is, the web is a culture built around "view source"; anything I do can easily be inspected, dissected, and reproduced by anyone with the inclination to do so. I didn't make my site to try to make money or win fame (ha!), I did it because it was fun.

More specifically, Adrian's a friend of mine (we used to work together at the Journal-World, and we're the lead developers of Django, an open source web framework) and he asked me to have something ready for the Post Remix launch. I certainly didn't expect attribution (let alone compensation) for it, and I agree with Adrian that the terms of use certainly are lenient. Think about the amount of time and effort an organization like the Post puts into its reporting... there's likely a solid financial case to be made for *not* allowing mashups.

The reason I asked about attribution is that "credit where credit is due", like "view source", is a central tenant of the web and I suspect that any mention of attribution is absent simply because it was overlooked, not because anyone -- and certainly not Adrian -- would be against it.

You probably have a solid legal point that enforcing terms of use on RSS feeds would be difficult, but I read the terms on the Post Remix site as a "gentlemen's agreement", not as anything really legally enforceable. Technically, everything the Post produces is copyright (unless otherwise licensed), so any remix is by definition a potential copyright violation.

This is obviously an experiment by the Post, and accusing them of stealing our first born (!) is just silly and reduces the likelihood a "real" API ever will get born (like you, I'd love to see one!)