Curation has become a popular term in media circles, in the sense of a human editor who filters and selects content, and then packages it and delivers it to readers in some way. Many people (including me) believe that, in an era when information sources are exploding online, aggregation and curation of some kind is about the only service left that people might be willing to pay for. That’s why it’s been interesting to watch one prominent website — All Things Digital, the online blog property that is owned by the Wall Street Journal, but run as a separate entity by Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg — wrestling with how to handle that kind of aggregation, amid criticism from some prominent bloggers that it has been doing it wrong.
As described by Andy “Waxy” Baio in an excellently reported roundup of the brouhaha, the fuss seemed to start with comments from Wall Street Journal editor Robert Thompson about how Google and other aggregators of news are “parasites” in the intestines of the Internet, because they republish the content of others and then make money from it. Pretty soon, some bloggers were pointing out that All Things Digital did exactly the same thing in a section called Voices — namely, published long excerpts from a variety of prominent bloggers, displayed in exactly the same way as the rest of the site’s content, and surrounded by ads.
Josh Schachter, founder of Delicious, noted this behaviour in a Twitter message, and Metafilter founder Matt Haughey said that “apparently The Wall Street Journal’s All Things D does a reblogging thing. I sure wish they asked me first though. That’s a hell of a lot of ads on my ‘excerpt’.” Merlin Mann, who blogs at 43folders, said on Twitter that “republishing online work without consent and wrapping it in ads is often called ‘feed scraping.’ At AllThingsD, it’s called ‘a compliment.”
In a conversation with Andy about the issue, Kara Swisher agreed that some of the excerpts were too long, and that the site didn’t really make it clear enough that these pieces were pulled from outside sources. This week, she wrote a long post describing how All Things D was changing the format of the Voices section to address some of these complaints, by shortening excerpts and providing better disclosure. “While we did not agree with all the complaints in the story,” she said, “the debate did make us realize we needed to be a lot clearer and more explicit about what we are doing, and to make those policies–which we had not posted in as much detail as we have, for example, about our ethics statements… more prominent and transparent.”
What I found particularly fascinating about this whole affair was the differing opinions on what All Things D had been doing. While Merlin Mann was incensed (and has since written a long polemic on the issue of re-use of his content), and Schachter and Haughey seemed miffed, some other writers that Andy Baio talked to said they were very happy to have the WSJ-owned site link to their content — something that they saw as a promotional effort on their behalf. “I think it’s helpful in driving some additional traffic to my blog,” said Eric Savitz of Tech Trader Daily (which is part of Barron’s, which in turn is owned by Dow Jones, parent of the WSJ). “It also gets me some higher visibility with a valuable audience. I have no complaints at all.” (Full disclosure: I know Kara Swisher and have had my content excerpted on the ATD site, and I was quite happy with the arrangement)
In a nutshell, this is why re-use, and the related concept of fair use, is such a tough nut to crack. Google uses a few sentences from a newspaper article and links back to the paper site — some papers see that as beneficial, but others see that as Google stealing something, and trying to repay them with a few cheap trinkets (i.e., web traffic). A site like All Things D excerpts content that it sees as worthy, and displays it in such a way as to elevate it to the same status as its own content — some writers see that as a favour and are happy to receive it, while others feel the site is taking something without permission and trying to give the impression that it’s theirs. Some authors want Google to scan and display chunks of their books, so that readers can find them — others see that as copyright infringement or even outright theft.
I wish I had the answer to this problem, but I don’t. Obviously, checking with the author before you excerpt something — which All Things D apparently didn’t do in these cases — is one way to avoid problems. But how is Google supposed to do that? How is any sufficiently large aggregator or curator supposed to do that? Should the onus be on the aggregator to ask, or should the onus be on the content creator to protest and ask that it be removed? Lots of questions, very few hard answers.