RSS as Poor Man’s Copyright

These ideas have been rolling around my brain for a while, fermenting, percolating, but bear with me if they might still be a little incoherent. It’s really the first time I’ve put words to them.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the “poor man’s copyright.” The idea behind it is to provide yourself copyright protection without actually registering your work, typically by mailing yourself a copy of your work with the idea that the postmark on the envelope will be enough to prove the copyright. I rather like the idea behind this concept, although in reality there is no legal provision for the poor man’s copyright and holds no legal weight whatsoever. In practice it would be easy to fake a copyright in this way.

But this idea of being able to prove and protect the copyright on your creative work (short of registering it) is a powerful one, so it’s natural to transfer the poor man’s copyright concept to the computer. The problem is, it’s even easier to fake a datestamp on an electronic file than on an envelope full of materials, so just relying on Word files on your computer is out.

You could borrow the idea of the PMC more literally and email your work to yourself—or better yet, to someone else. That would provide a better claim to credibility than files on a disk, but it’s far from foolproof—dates can be altered and forged on emails too. But now we’re moving in the right direction. And that’s where RSS comes in.

Post your work into an RSS feed that has a decent number of subscribers, the more the better. Their aggregators regularly ping and download your RSS feed, and your work is suddenly distributed among dozens—hundreds—thousands of computers and users, each instance of your work (ideally) stamped with the date and time it was downloaded (important note here: an item in an RSS feed can claim any arbitrary creation date, so that’s why it’s important to disinguish the download date at the aggregator level). There would be a standard deviation of several hours to several days, perhaps, of these datestamps. But what would you have? A distributed, decentralized, and dated web of your copyrighted work, collectively becoming a digital postmark on the proverbial envelope.

Fakeable? Sure, if you had access to a small number of controlled computers. But the larger the audience, especially a well-distributed one, the less able you would be to pull this off. That’s the beauty of this system: for a large enough set, the likelihood of faking or gaming the system approaches zero. There’s no single point of failure or vulnerability.

Other drawbacks? Well, you’d have to have a fairly large audience downloading your RSS feed regularly. That’s a bit of a trick. RSS aggregators would have to be sure to accurately record the download date of the feed. Also, anytime you wanted to back up a claim, you’d somehow have to mobilize enough of this audience to check their aggregator archives and confirm your claim in a timely manner and communicate this assertion to the other party securely and independently. Details, details. :-)

Would RSS PMC be any more legal and provide real protection over regular old PMC? In practice, I doubt it. Again, it’s the idea that’s powerful here and takes us to the next step. You’d have a peer-reviewed network where the group could at anytime confirm or deny the validity of what you claim. An online archived record distributed among thousands of computers of everything you created and loaded into your RSS feed.

It’s a double-edged sword, too. If you tried to plagiarize someone else’s work and claim it as your own, you’d have the community calling foul and moving against you. And the community has a long memory.

Suddenly, this sounds a lot like an online reputation system, doesn’t it? Once you get started thinking about this stuff, the ideas just start rolling out. That’s the beauty of this RSS thing—the possibilities and potential it creates.

3 thoughts on “RSS as Poor Man’s Copyright”

  1. That’s an interesting idea. I think if it got popular you could have some sort of certified RSS date tracking services.

    Heck, Google could incorporate some sort of official date stamping just from their frequent spidering, though I could see a case where the person who copied the data was spidered ahead of the one who originated it.

    I had not heard of poor man’s copyright, but it reminded me of yesterday’s Slashdot article:

    http://slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=04/01/16/0046234&mode=thread&tid=103&tid=126&tid=172&tid=93&tid=99

    The article was about the postal service doing electronic postmarks. There was also mention of an existing PGP timestamping service:

    http://www.itconsult.co.uk/stamper.htm

    One problem with the RSS thing is that you have to be publishing everything on the web, right? I have not tried the PGP timestamp, but I think I could apply that to any kind of data, online or off.

  2. The main problem I would have with Google doing something like this (or any single search engine, really), is that it’s a centralized source of data, a single point of failure: anyone on the inside could (theoretically) alter their data. Google is an amazing platform (yes, platform), but I’d rather push for the decentralized, distributed model that RSS excels at.

    And yeah, the publish everything on the web thing becomes a problem, but then isn’t that where we’re all heading anyway? 🙂

  3. Watch this space guys 😉 You have hit the virtual nail on the head about moving the PMC to a computer and it is a project we have been working on for nearly 24 months, ready to roll out very very soon with a solution I think (hope) you will like. (The real hard part has been securing the key partnership infrastructure, legal-beagles and of course a global name that people will trust).
    One of the other sites we found some time ago who were voicing a similar idea is http://www.halfbakery.com/idea/Secure_20Online_20Inventor_27s_20Notebook_2fWeblog

    One interesting point to note, is that you have effectively found a simple solution to your own question about an online PMC by typing this blog. Your writing above, is a "creative expression of an idea in tangible form" – and hence, if I tried to post your "creative writing" somewhere else without your permission -I have infringed on your copyright under the Berne Convention. If I did that, and you wanted to take me to court, you have Mike Boone and Jon who can both testify that they wrote what they did on the dates above as witnesses that you wrote it first. Which, will certainly help your cause in court more than a steamed open envelope! (We went down the route of using notaries to read works posted on WebPages such as blogs, comment on the page and save or print as completed files to cross reference if needed. The notary would charge for this – but we found the better way… which is OH so exciting!)

    BTW – with all the research we have been doing, the best link we found of all for the old paper method and how it can be faked is at
    http://www.copyrightauthority.com/poorman.htm

    In the mean-time, we have set-up and account which we collect the emails from daily now for people who’d be interested in seeing the site when it’s launched. This is for people who would want to either USE the site (creatives) or partner websites who want to help promote it and earn revenue (Partners). Drop us your email address to online_copyright_partner_interest@hotmail.com and we’ll shoot you the URL/Details when we have launched.

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