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Content Syndication and Brand Protection
Apr 20, 1998 :: Michael Sippey

Last week, Ted Nelson made an appearance at the World Wide Web 7 conference in Australia, and talked about the imminent release of his long-awaited product, Xanadu. "I will show a copyright method that will allow everyone to quote anyone else without red tape or negotiation, and without damaging copyright," said Nelson. "The copyright holder retains the rights."

I didn't retype that quote, I copied and pasted it from the article by James Glave on Wired News. Since I'm covering that story, I'm allowed to use that quote under the fair use provision of copyright law. If I wanted to republish the entire Wired News story (instead of just pointing to it), I would have to establish a contractual relationship with Wired Digital, whereby I would pay Wired News for that privilege.

As a content provider, I'm prickly about issues of distribution. I distribute Stating the Obvious via the World-Wide Web and an email list. I control the distribution on the website, and I have first-generation control over distribution via the retro-push mailing list. Forwarding is encouraged, of course, but I've willingly given up control over where retro-push ends up order to build readership.

But a friction free Internet with sites built from easily quotable content from any server on the web is a wolf in sheep's clothing. The "red tape" and "negotiation" that Nelson apparently abhors are vital in an information economy where brand is paramount. Content providers -- including news outlets, entertainment providers or commerce ventures -- spend valuable time and effort building their brand, which is, first and foremost, a relationship of trust between the consumer and the producer.

If content were freely exchangable among servers, as Nelson proposes, that relationship could quickly be violated. Regardless of any payment scheme that Nelson attaches to Xanadu, you can bet that Disney would not enjoy having their content reproduced on The "red tape" and "negotiation" that exists today enables content providers to protect their brand by preventing their content from appearing in inappropriate contexts.

This is not to say, however, that the benefits of server-to-server communication should be ignored in situations where content syndication would be beneficial. In my mind, one of the most interesting applications of XML will be the Information Content and Exchange (ICE) protocol, being developed by Vignette, Microsoft (and their subsidiary Firefly), C|Net and Ziff-Davis, among others. The ICE protocol will reportedly include the ability to define business rules, such as who will have access to specific information, and for how long. Potential applications include not only syndicated publishing, but also consolidated e-commerce catalogs and corporate extranets.

Finally, ICE will not only benefit large content, corporate and commerce users, but could also end up being a boon to independent publishers. Banner ads don't seem to work for sites without large amounts of traffic or dedicated sales forces, since independents rarely have the time or energy to market themselves to readers or advertisers. But content syndication could enable them to spend their time creating content, and sell it on a piece-by-piece basis to larger content aggregators like Yahoo, Excite or AOL. A network of content brokers could offer to "ICE-enable" independent publishers, and then take a 10% commission for brokering any syndication deals.

In the end, banners would stay where banners belong -- on high-traffic sites. Content producers would focus on what they do best -- producing content. And that most valuable piece of the information economy -- the brand -- would be protected and fostered by the people who create it.



Other pieces about online publishing: