RSS, which stands for Rich Site Summary (and is often thought to mean Real Simple Syndication), is a Web feed format that’s used to distribute and publish content online.
These feeds have been around as early as 1997, and are a great way for internet users to easily track their favorite online content. They create a personalized stream of live information, with published content from preferred news sources and websites all collected in one place. Better yet, RSS feeds are live, so everything shows up as soon as it’s published.
All this, without ever having to remember a page or visit an actual website.
But convenient as they are, there’s a lot of uncertainty about the legal side of how RSS feeds work. These copyright concerns often lead to unwanted disputes and headaches for everyone involved, so to help avoid those, today we’re taking a closer look at RSS feeds and the rules surrounding their use.
What is RSS?
Back before RSS feeds, the only way users could keep track of updates across their favorite websites was by manually visiting them. It was a time of many bookmarked pages, and even more disappointed check-ups.
RSS feeds solved this issue by allowing websites to publish and automatically organize the distribution of content. Whether RSS sends content to a user’s email, feed reader software, or another device, this method allows people to better access what they want—and never miss a thing.
How RSS Feeds Work
If a website has an active RSS feed, when anything’s uploaded to it, that content is also published to a structured XML document. This includes everything from the article content, its attached summary, and relevant metadata like author, date published, and category.
Once an XML document is automatically created, RSS feed readers connected to the website will fetch and display the content. However, this does not mean a website’s full content is automatically provided. Administrators are able to control how their XML documents are generated, and may choose which excerpts are displayed.
There are countless types of RSS reader software out there designed for both mobile devices and desktops. RSS feeds are also optional, and can be enabled or disabled on most platforms easily.
RSS Copyright Rules
Sorry to say it, but like most things on the internet, RSS feeds have copyright laws attributed to them that many people don’t understand or even know exist. Still, online restrictions tend to be a constant grey area, and the misuse of RSS feeds happen quite often.
This is largely because there is no standard for the legality surrounding RSS and copyright online. Every nation has its own set of laws for internet publication and use, and most share the same virtual space. Unsurprisingly, this leads to a lot of mismatched practices and overstepped boundaries. Though, it’s worth noting that recent steps by Europe’s GDPR aim to standardize internet privacy rules across its countries.
But as it stands now, the internet and its RSS feeds are very difficult—if not almost impossible—to regulate.
Where Legal Violations Occur
As a basic rule of thumb, reusing anybody’s creation online is prohibited under copyright laws.
For example: When anything is written and published on the internet, those words are owned by somebody. Usually, either the writer themselves, or the publisher who pays the writer to create new content for their website. But as those words are copyrighted, when they’re published to an RSS feed they don’t suddenly become free reign for someone else to copy and republish elsewhere online.
Unless specific permissions are given to replicate the writing, it is not allowed to be posted on any other website. Only the original website where the content was produced, and the RSS feeds the website sends the content to, fall within the limits of fair use.
So, if content is posted to an RSS feed, that still means it can’t be legally republished. The fact that an article, or video, or any other form of media is easily and instantly available on an RSS feed doesn’t mean that its copyright is renounced.
But, despite these rules, you’ll still see illegally republished content from RSS feeds often enough.
How to Defend RSS Content
While it is in no way a requirement to include a copyright statement or any other reminder that RSS content is legally owned, it never hurts to include a mention in a feed.
People who think to republish content will be presented with a clear statement that it would be in violation of copyright law. This will help clear up confusion for those who don’t know better, or at the very least, act as a deterrent for those who do.
However, this isn’t an end-all defensive measure. People may still republish RSS content, and if that happens, all the original publisher can do is ask that the copied content be removed, send a claim to Google, or legally challenge them.
Software applications, like this one for WordPress, are also available to help users handle the management of their RSS content.
Main Benefits of Enabling RSS
While they are vulnerable to copyright violations (though not technically more so than web content published anywhere else), enabling an RSS feed is a fantastic way to make it easy for audiences to subscribe to a website’s content.
On the user’s end, they won’t have to remember what a website’s URL is, and they are able to bring all the content that interests them to one location. Most modern feed readers also allow users to organize their feed’s content for an optimized reading experience. Even better, this way the content they desired becomes portable and available offline once downloaded to their feed, making it easier for people to engage with your website.
Essentially, this all means RSS feeds are a great way for websites to cultivate and sustain a following of loyal users. It also makes content much more shareable across social media platforms, potentially extending its reach to an even wider audience.
RSS feeds are wonderful for accessing everything a website has to offer, but they do have copyright rules that should be respected. When these rules are followed (which isn’t that difficult), users are free to indulge in RSS content as they please.
This also means that websites shouldn’t hesitate to make their own content available for RSS readers.
The benefits far outweigh the risks, with the only risks really being: As content becomes more widely consumed, it’s more likely to be unlawfully republished, and that rings true regardless of whether RSS is involved.