Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Copyright and Syndication

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Aug 10, 2000

A few months back I signed up for a Javascript newsfeed from Moreover. The idea was to replace my existing newsfeed from iSyndicate. This would save me the trouble of messing around with frames; iSyndicate's HTML page allows minimal customization, but Moreover's Javascript newsfeed could be inserted neatly into a template page.

Newsfeeds aren't hard to produce. Basically, for a newsfeed provider, it's a three-step process:

  1. use a simple web spider to grab headlines from a collection of newspaper websites;
  2. organize those headlines into categories; and
  3. provide access to those categorized lists of headlines.

The first of these search engines have been doing for years. It is not hard to write software that scans a site and retrieves the URLs.

The second is a bit harder because categorization can be hard. This is why most syndication companies provide only a small list of categories - "Tech news," for example, or "China." But with more and more news agencies producing content in RSS format, it is getting easier for syndicators to assign items to the correct category.

The third area is where the changes are taking place. Once restricted to producing output on HTML pages, syndication companies are now placing their output into specialized files. The idea here is to allow web site owners to embed syndicated content into their own sites.

That's what Moreover does with its Javascript feeds. It collects headlines and then saves them to a specially designed Javascript file. This file is updated every day. Webmasters who want to include their newsfeeds need only include the Javascript file - a simple one-line command - into their web page.

Which brings me to the topic of this article. As I mentioned, I signed up for the Moreover newsfeed and tested it on my website for a while. This past Tuesday I received a nice letter from Moreover's account executive:


I noticed that each of you have signed up for our news feeds using our Webfeed Wizard. I wanted to see how things are going with that, and hopefully get some screen shots to see how it looks on your intranet sites. Also, if you are currently using our news feeds, please complete the attached agreement and fax it back to me at 415.707.2005. If you have any questions, or would like more information, please let me know.

I won't reprint the attached contract, but it is available - in MS Word format - here. The document itself is a mess - full of corrections and type-overs. And signing the document implies agreement that Moreover has exclusive rights to - well - everything.

From the contract:

3.1.1 Subject to the rights granted herein, Moreover will retain all intellectual property rights in and to the Moreover Tools, the Moreover database of News Publishers and to the methodologies developed by Moreover for the categorization of news channels and the customization of content within those channels and all related intellectual property rights (the "Moreover Intellectual Property").

This is a very sweeping claim. Moreover's primary tools are the content-skimming spiders and the Javascript newsfeed - both common and widely used technologies. Its database consists of a list of newspapers from around the world, a list available from Yahoo or any other search engine. Nobody should agree to Moreover's claims of ownership to these.

From the contract, again:

3.1.4 Company agrees that it shall not... (ii) attempt to reverse engineer, decompile, disassemble or otherwise attempt to derive any of Moreover's computer programs, patents, copyrights, trade secrets or other proprietary rights or Moreover's methodology related to the creation and compilation of Moreover Headline Newslinks or any other information furnished to Company by Moreover or permit any third party to attempt any of the foregoing;

According to this clause, you cannot look up Moreover's patents or try to figure out how they produce their newsfeeds. But what's to reverse engineer? The three technologies listed above are widely available - Moreover's claim to them notwithstanding.

3.1.4 Company agrees that it shall not... (iii) compile or create any derivative product based upon the Moreover Intellectual Property, any other confidential information, or any methodology of Moreover;

This clause assigns the entire domain of content syndication to Moreover - let's hope nobody from iSyndicate signs this agreement by accident.

We have a serious problem here, and the serious problem is not Moreover's agreement, which will be rightly disregarded as a pre-emptive tactic to give it an edge in the inevitable lawsuits. The serious problem is whether content aggregators can lay claim over their aggregation (much less the fact that they aggregate at all).

No matter how you look at it, Moreover's product is a list of links. In this it differs in no way from any of dozens - hundreds - of sites, including Yahoo, Drudge Report and NewsTrolls. And collections of links are not copyrightable - otherwise there would be only one search engine on the internet.

What appears to be unique to Moreover's service is the fact that it produces its output in Javascript and RSS formats, allowing other websites to incorporate the content into their own websites. But - importantly - even though they are placing these openly on the internet, they are trying to attach terms and conditions on their use.

Imagine web site owners could get away with this. Imagine that, by reading this article, you concede to me, the author, that I have "discovered" the debate over copyright and syndication, and that thereafter, any discussion of copyright and syndication muct refer to my original discussion, attributing ownership of the topic to me. That would be absurd!

Moreover right now scans only news websites, however, should its data collection widen its claims to ownership could have a serious impact on the web as a whole. Suppose, for example, it created a category, "New Legislation," and scanned government websites. Could Moreover thereby lay claim to all news about new legislation? The possibility seems absurd - but this is what their contract states.

Indeed - their contract states that nobody else is allowed to even try to collect lists of new legislation, since they have already established this as a "list of sites" and a "methodology."

Today, more than 1500 sites offer XML feeds listing their site contents - and many more are in development. The purpose of these feeds is to allow everybody to do exactly what Moreover is doing - to extract website contents, categorize them intelligently, and to make them available to other websites.

This wasn't Moreover's idea. Moreover is merely the company is trying to lay claim to it. We have a word for such rigid enforcers of copyright.


Syndicating the Web. Red Herring, May 23, 2000.
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Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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