Voices without Votes != splog

vwv-promo-125-square.gifAs part of my ongoing work for GlobalVoices, I recently designed and coded a GV-like site with the specific goal of covering foreign blog reactions to the 2008 U.S. presidential election, called Voices without Votes. The VwV site is a mix of original posts by GV authors about what people in other countries are saying about the elections and links to foreign posts about the elections along with the first ~50 words as a preview.

Despite what seems like a clearly good motivation and practice, some people have big issues with this, likening it to a pathetic practice called ‘splogging‘ (spam blogging, wikipedia link). In the WordPress IRC channel (a chatroom, #wordpress on irc.freenode.net) some guys got pretty upset about the idea and I had a debate with them about copyright and aggregation of blogs (aggregation means getting content from varied sources and showing them toghether). This resulted in ‘markr’ posting a lengthy critique of VwV’s aggregation practices on his blog, HERE.

Most of his arguments stem from misconceptions about VwV or about copyright law, but some are sincerely just expressions of his dictatorial attitude towards content. I left the response below as a comment on the post, but am reprinting it here for posterity and for those who read my blog and not his (note: his full response is viewable on his page, only the parts I wanted to respond to are below. Skipped parts are mostly him telling the story i told above).

WARNING: This isn’t for my casual readers. It’s long, detailed, political and there are absolutely no lolcats anywhere to be found.

Hi markr,

My name is Jeremy Clarke (homepage simianuprising.com), I am the developper of the Voices without Votes site and the anonymous person mentioned in this post. I’ll respond to some of the points made above, but first I’d like to make some general comments.

First, I’m glad that I and VwV sparked a debate and are making people think about the limits of copy control and aggregation in the modern blogosphere. In the ‘web 2.0’ context, borders are being redefined and we should all pay attention and act carefully.

Second, in the referenced IRC conversation and in this email I was/am speaking as myself, Jeremy Clarke from Montreal Canada, and not any of the organizations that I do or have worked for. I do not represent the views or opinions of Global Voices, Reuters or any of their parents or subsidiaries. I represent myself as a developper, author and copyright scholar (I recently finished a B.A. In Communications, where copyright law in the U.S. and Canada were among my primary fields of study).

Third, I think you are being paranoid. As a developper for Global Voices and Voices without Votes, I have never once encountered any exploitative or even commercial intent among my superiors, co-workers or the many volunteers who power our reporting. We hope only to create a resource for people looking for ways of entering foreign blogospheres and understanding the people who inhabit them. This involves linking to, quoting and summarizing a plethora of content from around the world, as does any journalism (and especially meta-journalism in the way that GV performs in reviewing what citizen journalists are doing). We have a deep respect for all bloggers and are all bloggers ourselves.

Their site was apparently ‘okay’ being sponsored by Reuters though with WordPress having had ’sponsored’ themes that word isn’t as clean.

Your allusion to ‘sponsored wordpress themes’ is either pointless or dishonest. The referenced shady phenomenon is when a theme is distributed to the public for use on blogs around the web with links embedded in them. The means of this scheme is to create false links to the theme ‘sponsors’ from the blogs who use the theme, with the goal of fooling Google into thinking the sponsored site is popular. This is a form of link-spam similar to the original goal of comment spamming with links. The phenomenon started being heavily criticized by Automattic and the WP community because themes were being redistributed with added links being the only change. VwV and in fact any aggregated blog has absolutely nothing to do with this phenomenon, nor are sites who’s CONTENT is sponsored in any way similar to THEMES that are ‘sponsored’ in the spammy sense.

If you take my work and display it on your site then you are not simply giving me an extra link back – you are stealing my work because you intend to use my work to boost your site.

How about if I link to your site and paste into my post a two line quote from it, in a <blockquote>, with your name as the source of the quote? Am I exploiting you when I do that? I think that anyone with a head knows that short quotes (like the truncated intros to posts that we display on VwV) do not break copyright law nor should they.

Without the ability to quote information or prose for reference and journalism it would be insanely difficult to have a discussion as a literary community. In actual copyright law this idea is enshrined in the principle of Fair Use in the U.S.A. and Fair Dealing in Canada. In both cases quoting or copying (in part or in whole) for the purposes of research and comment is protected. This is useful both for aiding researchers and commenters by not requiring them to ask permission (which is difficult and often impossible) and for stopping copyright holders from excerting undue control over their works (e.g. to quelch criticism). Knowledge is a public good in the U.S. and it’s dissemination and use is protected (in Canada this is not explicitly stated in law, but the Canadian Supreme Court’s discussions of the Fair Dealing clause expose it as a priority).

Note also that in both cases a ‘trasformative’ work is seen as more deserving of protection than a mere duplication (there are several other considerations as well, including intent, competition and finance).

I checked one blog from this site – it had the word Copyright in the sidebar and on every single post. Yet the site it was being displayed on did so under a CC license. Another blog had no copyright information but the same CC license was being used. It was a blanket license with no regard to the incoming work.

This is an interesting point: If a part of VwV is aggregated post snippets (with the other part being long, original analysis posts, in blue at the top), then can VwV honestly license itself as Creative Commons?

The answer, if you look at the site for a few seconds, is clear. VwV cannot say that the linked articles are CC, but they can mark the ORIGINAL CONTENT as CC, as we have done in the footer of our site, which clearly says “Original Content [cc]” (we use an image cc badge). We are not making any claims about the linked articles, which belong to their owners.

Note also, as in other parts of this situation, that the posts are not displayed on our site. So even if we DID say that all content was CC VwV, that license would only be applied to the links we have made and to the categorization work we have done to the links (organizing them into countries and issues). Our selection and organization would be CC, the things we selected are not. Just like Leonard Maltin does not claim copyright over the films he reviews in his books, but just the review and rating.

of the 10 or so links I checked, not a single one was a WordPress blog. This means that (a) WP bloggers are not very good at global issues or (b) the incoming links in the dashboard would give them away.

This is so paranoid I can’t believe you wrote it down (it’s also a logical fallacy). Do you really think that even if we were as sleazy as you imply, we would actually make decisions on that basis?

You are completely and insultingly wrong. We are linking to non-U.S. bloggers talking about the election. If you have WP blogs you’d like to submit then please do, we welcome all submissions. In fact, we prefer WP blogs because they allow easy access to Category-based RSS feeds by default (unlike Movable Type/Typepad, which make it mostly impossible).

My money is with the latter.

You should be more careful with your money.

I also checked to see if these blogs had a notice that they were proud to have been selected to have their work shown on a site sponsored by Reuters. They had no such information. So the bloggers involved have no clue at all that their work was being taken and displayed elsewhere.

This is both logically flawed and irrelevant. They can very well know we are linking to them and not have a badge promoting us, the idea that lack of a badge proves ignorance is just silly.

The site owner will argue that the blogger gets a link and gets traffic. As the blogger is not being told about their work being shown elsewhere they are not in a position to make a judgement are they? So that argument is nonsense and used to justify their actions.

We don’t need arguments about benefits to the linked blogs to justify our actions – our actions are protected by law and by common sense – but the fact that most blogs want traffic and links and that we provide traffic and links means that in pretty much all situations it is not only a justified and legal relationship, but also a symbiotic one, so both parties benefit without either being hurt (please give me a real way in which we hurt someone beyond your sensibilities about controlling your content and we can talk about it, but so far you’re just giving me theorical arguments promoting control and copyright maximalism for it’s own sake).

The web is made up of links and most of them do not involve permission on the part of the linked.

Whoever set this up wants more work, they want this site to enhance their reputation and they are currently using the work of others to do that. So saying there are no ads and therefore no gan[sic] is at best disingenuous and at worst plain lying.

Please note that one said there was no intention of ‘gain’ in creating this site. My personal claim is that there is no ‘loss’ to anyone, and no one has given me an example of ‘loss’ that would somehow make any ‘gain’ we receive ill-gotten.

I’d also like to note that if you think ‘using the work of others for gain’ is wrong, you should start with bigger fish like Digg.com and Google News.

The fact that the aim of the site was to raise awareness and do good is of no importance.

Correct. It’s just a nice bonus, and it’s why I work for Global Voices.

It’s still wrong to take without knowledge.

I think we’re having issues with the word ‘take’ maybe?

Fact is that Reuters have strict usage policies on their output (”All rights reserved. Republication or redistribution of Reuters content, including by framing or similar means, is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Reuters.”), so why is a blogger of less importance?

Very true. Aren’t you proud of us for having a CC license on this work instead?

Luckily for the world, the copyright notice that Reuters uses (good find btw, the part about ‘framing’ is pretty hilarious, I guess i’ll have to take down my laminated copy of their front page from my window) in no way supercedes the rights granted by Fair Use/Dealing, so anyone is free to quote from or reproduce their content for the purposes of comment or critique just like they can with any copyright work (see: Google News).

Note also that the only reason we don’t have Mainstream Media sources like Reuters in the site is because they are categorically not blogs, otherwise they would get the same promotion and links from us as the blogs we are linking to. We think blogs are MORE important, that’s why we link to them.

Strange that the parent site does acknowledge contributions – http://www.globalvoicesonline.org/for-bloggers but that this site only links to ’some’ – http://voiceswithoutvotes.org/blogs/.

Every post that is displayed as ‘aggregated’ (i.e. full content unnavailable and all links lead to their site rather than to inside our site) has the name and link of the originating blog displayed prominently. The list you are referring to at /blog/ is the list of feeds we actively watch, and does not include sites from which we only aggregated a single or couple of posts. This is a technical differentiation who’s goal is to avoid strain on our server resources.

Be assured: every post we link to has the site of origin prominently displayed and linked.

Here’s what should happen.
The site asks blogger for permission to use certain posts.
The blogger is then being acknowledged as the owner of their work.
The blogger knows that certain posts will be getting a wider audience so may actually produce better posts.
The blogger gets the chance to set their own license.
The blogger gets the chance to link directly to the other site.
The blogger gets a buzz from knowing their work is deemed to be good enough to be added.
The overall project gets more links, more traffic, more visibility.

This is pretty much exactly what we have done, for exactly the reasons you state. If they know we are listening, they will talk more often, for longer, and more carefully. If we tell them they will want to link to us, which is good for both parties. We also encourage people who we want to aggregate to use specific categories to help us aggregate their content more efficiently. We’ve had some great responses!

Total cost of the above? “Hi, I’d love to use some of your posts on our site…”

Unfortunately this is not the case. Many people do not respond or respond so slowly that the election will be over before we hear from them. Because there is no ill-effect from proceding anyway, we don’t wait. We also don’t want to have our own free speech stifled because a blog owner doesn’t understand copyright law and causes a pointless ruckus for no reason.

Make a proper contributors page – hardly a lot of work but makes people feel even better.

This is obviously a responsible idea, but would just result in an impossibly huge list of blogs. We chose to highlight the biggest ‘contributors’ and let the linked posts of others speak for themselves on the archive pages where they are shown.

It would probably enhance the site and the person behind it even more.

There are dozens of people behind this site, but thank you for the advice on how to enhance myself.

I’d like to share a few final thoughts on the state of aggregation in the modern blogosphere:

I understand that you are upset about spam blogs (“splogs” as the kids call them: blogs automatically generated by farming content off real blogs with the intention of tricking Goggle or making add revenue). You got upset about VwV in the context of splogs and, in the IRC conversation, I made some comments that could be construed as defending splogs (which is not and was not my intention).

Splogging is an obnoxious form of exploitation and opportunism like all forms of spam. Finding your content randomly stolen and used by some script-kiddie with no link to your site or reference to you is a frustrating experience and is obviously wrong, both because it is a very explicit violation of your copyright and because it obviously does nothing good for the world in any way. It fills the internet with confusing garbage hoping to make a penny per thousand blogs it rips off.

However, as I said in the IRC, construing VwV as ANY kind of spam is to be completely blind to reality. VwV is a carefully moderated and written site, a dozen people are actively working to keep the quality of the aggregated links high and to write original content about non-english blogospheres (most of them are not being paid for this, they are volunteering because they believe in the project). We carefully attribute all posts with their blogs of origin and show them differently from our original content. The only thing that VwV has in common with a splog is that it uses aggregation.

As content producers we have to have a more nuanced view of our copyright and our content than merely “copying is always wrong unless i said so”. Aggregation is a valuable, valid and loved part of the blogosphere.

Sites like BoingBoing, Digg, Metafilter and Slashdot all survive based on the value of creating links to other parts of the web along with quoted text or photos. Imagine if BoingBoing.net was forced to get permission before posting a link to a steampunk watch site with an example photo of one of their watches, it would be a nightmare, and it would stifle people’s ability to point to each other without jumping through hoops and being told no for no good reason.

No one finds linking with quotes a problem in the cases above, and I think that by the same token it is in no way a problem with VwV. The splog ecosystem is annoying and wrong (as well as pretty much unstoppable), but it will not be helped by trying to stop legitimate sites for using cosmetically similar means to shuffle visitors through the web. You’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater, try not to be so defensive and life will seem less stressful.

Jeremy Clarke

3 Replies to “Voices without Votes != splog”

  1. You seem to be obfuscating on the facts at hand. This isn’t a matter of mere citation, you are hanging your hat on the works of others. This isn’t a matter of individuals contributing their work to a blog, or effort, this is an example of a blog appropriating content to provide an illusion of it being a viable source for information and discourse.

    I also have to say that as the site in question has been “commisioned” by Reuters and given what the term “commisioned” means, that Reuters paid and/or compensated you to create something for their usage and or profit..

    You need to address what that means, because it’s clear that something Reuters commisions isn’t something grassroots inspired.. and frankly a sham.

  2. If you think working with a big corporation to organize projects like VwV makes it a sham and not ‘grassroots’ enough for you then fine, think that all you want. It doesn’t effect the ethical or legal reality of why and how the site works. I’m not saying the site is super cool (you can decide that for yourself I guess), I’m saying that we’re not doing anything wrong.

    As to obfuscating facts, feel free to give me some facts I’m obfuscating that are relevant to the legal and ethical discussion we are having about the appropriation of content. I’m being pretty explicit about what we’re doing, so if you want more details about something you’ll have to ask I suppose, but I don’t think anything will blow your mind or turn the tide in my argument’s disfavor.

    You think that because the authors of the works are not directly involved in the posting process that it is only pretending to be ‘a viable source of information and discourse’. So do you think the same about sites like Digg and Slashdot? How about Metafilter or BoingBoing? Those are all popular communities that are well regarded despite the fact that they primarily link to outside stories without permission. It’s the same weird argument over and over, we’re “hanging our hats” and as a result somehow hurting the authors who’s work we are promoting. Show me a way we are hurting them, I dare you.

    The fact that the linking is partially automated and shows a content sample rather than a 3rd party summary doesn’t mean that the author somehow loses revenue or has their work stolen, the full text is only viewable on their site where they can show ads and control the message. All we are doing is making the links available in an organized way based on a specific topic.

    That is what makes the web powerful and popular, any site can link to another site when more information is required. When you place your content on the public internet (as opposed to behind a paywall or other security) you invite links to your content as a resource, and generally speaking you cherish links because they bring interested people and potential revenue sources. I think pretty much everyone linked to by VwV and GlobalVoices is glad to have the attention as is usual in the world of blogging.

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