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.