There’s a new scraper in town. When the word came in, I strolled over to Bob Ambrogi’s Law Sites to see who it was. The name is Law Ratchet, and no, I won’t make the play on its name because it’s too easy. If this seems like deja vu all over again, it is. Scraper USLaw, run by some kid who goes by the name Gregory Chase while sitting on the couch in his mother’s basement hoping to earn enough off his website to pay for his Cheetos fix, tried to get away with this years ago. It failed.
So naturally, someone new comes along thinking they’ve discovered an untapped resource, someone else’s content, and can parlay that into cash in their pocket. The mechanics are simple: Take a blawg’s RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed and use it to recreate someone else’s content on your website. Maybe there’s a link back to the original, maybe not. Maybe there’s acknowledgement of the author, maybe not. Regardless, they glom the full content created by someone else, add nothing to enhance its value, and offer it up.
The day after Ambrogi noted its existence, the obvious question was asked.
Afterwards, a reader emailed me asking a key question my post did not address — that of whether Law Ratchet is violating the copyrights of the publishers and bloggers whose stories it is picking up.The posts included Bob’s. Volokh’s. Mine. Bob, calling it a grey area of law, notes that in 2005, Eric Goldman wrote that by allowing readers to access a blawg via an RSS feed, it might be acceptable for scrapers to steal it:
For many of the articles Law Ratchet picks up, it is republishing them in full on its own site, complete with images.
In my mind, there’s no question that a blogger grants an implied license to the content in an RSS feed. However, because it’s implied, I’m just not sure of the license terms. So, in theory, it could be an implied license to permit aggregators to do whatever they want.Just to be sure, I checked with Eric yesterday to see if this was still his view, and it is. He notes an Israeli court reached a similar conclusion, though in Associated Press v. Meltwater, the Southern District of New York held scraping to be copyright infringement. On the other hand, IP lawyer Marc Randazza says it’s a copyright violation, without any doubt whatsoever.
Ambrogi asked the babies in charge of Law Ratchet, Derek Chau, a 2006 Harvard Law grad, and Will Mouat, who were Ropes and Gray associates before they weren’t, about their scraping. They responded in marketeer fashion:
On the issue of copyright law, we did invest a fair amount of time researching the matter. I would hazard to guess that you are familiar with the copyright issues given your experience with media law. We carefully analyzed the issues and suffice it to say that we believe that Law Ratchet is well-positioned on the merits of the legal issues.
Suffice? No, “you say so” doesn’t suffice. In fact, what you “believe” is worthless.
Will and I embarked on this venture to create a better experience for lawyers to consume and discover legal news. In doing so, our goal has been to work with content providers and to forge mutually beneficial partnerships with authors and publishers. In fact, we believe that the only way Law Ratchet will succeed in the marketplace is with their cooperation and partnership.And so the bullshit flows, because if you wrap up scraping in pretty bows, it’s not like it’s really stealing and nobody will call you out. Except I am.
Much as I respect Eric Goldman, he’s completely wrong on his imputation of an implied license as to RSS feeds. RSS is merely the tool by which individual readers view content. There is a facile assumption by some that because it’s easy to grab off an RSS feed, it must be free for the taking. That’s like saying if someone leaves a potted plant outside their front door, it must be okay to walk over and take it. Because, you know, if they didn’t want you to take it, they would have locked it up in the safe. It’s absurd.
It’s true that some blawgers, particularly those with fewer readers or who subscribe to the “all information should be free” philosophy, don’t mind being scraped. Others overlay their personal sense of propriety, that it’s okay with them provided they get attribution, or maybe a link back. That’s fine, if they don’t care whether someone scrapes their stuff. But that’s not the law, and their sensibilities don’t dictate what’s permissible for other people who don’t share their willingness to be scraped.
On twitter, Mark Lyon asked whether it was okay if it was just someone curating interesting stuff. The question missed the mark. The details of how a scraper uses someone else’s content, or how someone who might want curated content, is irrelevant. The point is that it’s not their content to sell, whether curated, tied in a bow or any other way.
It’s copyright. It’s someone else’s content, and without permission to offer it, they can’t. Even if its easy to scrape or readers might enjoy the ease of someone else curating it for them. It’s just not theirs to offer. And as for readers wanting someone to chew their food for them, USLaw tried it already, and nobody wanted it. The business model is not only wrong, but bad.
As for me, I added a footer (that I got from Mark Bennett) to my RSS feed that makes my position clear.
© 2007-13 Simple Justice NY LLC. This feed is for personal, non-commercial & Newstex use only. The use of this feed on any other website is a copyright violation. If this feed is not via RSS reader or Newstex, it infringes the copyright.If you want to see it in the wild, it’s right there on the Law Ratchet scraping of my posts. As for Chau and Mouat, can you say “statutory damages”? I bet you can. As of this moment, there are 134 posts of mine on Law Ratchet. Do you still believe?
Update: I see that our pals at Law Ratchet have excised SJ from their offerings, as if it never happened. Except for the screen shots taken before they did so. Because some people plan ahead.
Update 2: I’ve received an email from Derek Chau. I was told to expect an apology from him, and this is what was received:
First, this is not an apology. Second, it demonstrates no grasp of what he did wrong.Scott,
The content from Simple Justice has been removed from Law Ratchet. If you would prefer that the first few lines of your posts appear, with a link to the original article, please let me know. We will also reach out to other authors who have concerns about if and how their content is presented.Almost 2 weeks ago, we filed a registration with the U.S. Copyright Office to appoint an agent to receive DMCA notices. Although we haven’t received confirmation of the registration yet, we will very soon put up a copyright section on our website to allow parties to communicate with us. As we communicated before, we will respect the wishes of authors or publishers who requests that their content be removed.
Law Ratchet does not generate any revenue: we do not charge a subscription fee, we do not deploy ads, and we do not resell content. We will announce in the near future how we intend to partner with authors, many of whom are excited by the benefits of reaching a larger audience.Apologies for any misunderstanding and for not having a clear process up earlier for you to request your content to be removed.Regards,
CEO, Ratchet Technology
Update 3: Another email has come in from Derek Chau, but this one reflects both a sincere apology and recognition that Law Ratchet was wrong to scrape.
I want to sincerely and personally apologize. I acknowledge that my first reply was insufficient. We clearly operated in a way that caused you and others to be upset. That certainly wasn’t our intention and we are sorry. We acknowledge and respect the concerns raised by you and your readers. In addition to an apology, we are taking steps to address these concerns.
First, you were absolutely right to call us out on “scraping” content from some websites: for some sources, we had partial RSS feeds and scraped the remainder of the article from the source website. We stopped doing that today and you were right for drawing attention to it. We honestly didn’t appreciate or anticipate the effect on authors. Now we do. Because of your comments, that stopped today and we no longer scrape. The portions of article that had been scraped in the past will be removed from our site.
Second, we recognize that we did not have adequate copyright notices page on our website; while we filed for the DMCA registration about two weeks ago, it hasn’t come through. We are working now to improve the webpage to more clearly include contact information for copyright-related concerns.
Third, we haven’t adequately communicated to you and the broader community what Law Ratchet actually is and how it works. Putting any sales pitch aside for the moment, Law Ratchet is a pre-populated RSS reader, and similar in function to the many other RSS readers available on the market. Our distinguishing characteristic is that we went through many blogs and put them in relevant categories so that it would be easier for a typical user to pick up and use right away. We genuinely (perhaps naively) figured that most authors would be excited by the prospect of having their RSS feeds discovered by more people. Because of the concerns you have raised, we will work to improve our communication with content publishers. We will also provide an opt-out option to make it easy for them to have their content removed from the site.
Again, my apologies. We are working diligently to apologize to and respond to all authors who have expressed concerns. We welcome sincere and open dialogue.
I accept Derek’s apology, his good will representation that his new business will not continue to engage in scraping, and Law Ratchet will base its future efforts on contributing to the blawgosphere rather than being a parasite, feeding off it for his own benefit. To his credit (and to my great surprise given his first email), Derek chose not to “double down,” and it must have been a very difficult thing to do. I respect that he faced up to what was very wrong here and dealt with it.
As far as I’m concerned, this apology ends the matter. I plan to make clear to Derek what things he should not be doing if he doesn’t want to make his business a pariah and defendant. Feel free to let him know any thoughts you have as well. While I have serious doubts that his business model will work, I wish him well now that the scraping is behind him.