Reblog this at your own legal risk
Bloggers rip, reuse and rehash text and media from the entrails of the Internet all the time, but the legality of doing so remain contentious.
Legal questions aside, the major blogging platforms have come to facilitate the reproduction of content from other websites.
Last week, WordPress, the top host of blogs, added a "reblog" feature. Clicking that button composes a new post housed on your blog suffixed with the headline, description, thumbnail and link to the source material -- a process nearly identical to adding a link to your Facebook profile.
"Borrowing" content has been a common practice among bloggers practically from the beginning. You can take whatever you want as long as you give credit, right?
Excerpts of text generally fall within the "fair-use" doctrine of U.S. copyright law. Bloggers can freely use parts of someone else's writing to help make a point. Wholesale reproduction of an article is never a good idea. Still, courts may be more lenient with noncommercial blogs -- so there's solid reason to think twice about slapping up Google ads. Or packaging and selling a newspaper's content in an iPad app.
Reposting photos is dicier. You don't commonly excerpt an image. Most photographers expect to be compensated when someone is using their work in a for-profit venue. But fair use can come into play if the blog post's commentary pertains specifically to the photo, rather than using the image as a complement.
Courts also might be more forgiving if reblogging is a practice that's very common within the online community the content was initially published in, noted Neil Netanel, a professor at the UCLA School of Law. However, now that reblogging is commonplace in the majority of platforms, where do we draw the line? Or is copyright law out of date?
No high-profile lawsuits have pertained specifically to reblogging, though Netanel points out that a weekly called the Nation got into trouble for quoting a hefty chunk of one of President Gerald Ford's speeches. Our own James Rainey wrote in Wednesday's edition of The Times about the Las Vegas Review-Journal suing roughly three dozen websites and blogs for infringement.
Tumblr pioneered the reblog concept, allowing users to easily repost something from another blog on the service with two clicks. Originally, a Tumblr reblog would re-create the original package in its entirety, complete with pictures, whether it was one line of text or a hundred. Tumblr began truncating lengthy stories with a link to the source, but clicking a button at the top could snatch the rest.
The makers of Movable Type followed suit with a reblog feature for its TypePad platform (the service this blog is hosted on). Google provides a BlogThis extension to bridge Web pages found using its Chrome browser with the Blogger platform; it only includes the headline and link -- no excerpt or image. And Twitter implemented a way to instantly repost messages with credit to the originator, adapting a practice that had been growing organically from its users, called "retweet."
Tumblr didn't respond to requests for comment, but within its user agreements are clauses that seem to untangle the New York company from any copyright infringements committed by its users. WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg considers reblogging an improvement upon old ways in every sense.
"It includes just a short quote and links to the source blog for the rest," Mullenweg wrote in an e-mail. "This is better than what bloggers were doing before (often copy/pasting large chunks) and more efficient."
Kimberley Isbell, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society and an attorney, agrees.
"You used to be able to do this, but you had to do it manually by cutting and pasting," Isbell said. "To a certain extent, what you're seeing is the platforms finally catching up to what people are doing."
If the blog platforms have just now caught up, the laws themselves have barely left the stable.
-- Mark Milian
Photo: WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg in 2008. Credit: Randy Stewart via Flickr