Lately I’ve noticed a few tweets like this appearing in my feed:
Why can't living things live forever? http://t.co/gFXEl0JjEQ— Quartz (@qz) August 11, 2015
The link takes you to Quartz, to a page that looks like a regular story but is really content copy/pasted from Quora.
My first reaction was wondering if Quora had started syndicating content out to select partners. Then I wondered about who owns the content on Quora. I found the answer to that question on Quora’s TOS page, which states in bold red ink:
You retain ownership of all Content you submit, post, display, or otherwise make available on the Service.
The terms then go on to list all of the ways that, effectively, everyone else on the planet actually owns your content:
Quora gives you a worldwide, royalty-free, non-assignable and non-exclusive license to re-post any of the Content on Quora anywhere on the rest of the web provided that…
They then list some standard requirements like not modifying the content and making sure to link back to the original Quora post.
So clearly Quartz is not in violation of any content rights. And I should point out that Quartz is just one of many publishers reposting Quora content. Forbes, Slate, Time, Vox, Huffington Post, and Business Insider all do it, too.
But what’s more interesting than the rights question is the question about whether this is just curation-as-usual or something new.
Some publishers reference Quora answers in the usual web way of writing a brief summary and then linking back to the source. The cases I’m talking about are where the publisher re-posts content in-full without adding anything of their own. Here’s an example from Newsweek. A few things to note.
The headline is taken from the Quora question and the answer is posted without modification or commentary. So as far the content goes, there’s no value being added by the publisher.
Something else is that this is evergreen content. It’s not breaking news coming over the wire where the publisher has some claim to value about distributing highly time-sensitive information.
Another point along these lines, which is that the curation argument was a lot stronger when news sites were thought of as destination sites. Pulling external content into the publisher’s internal browsing context made sense. But that context no longer exists. The main audience touchpoints are now external, spread across social, email, and search channels. Linking from these channels directly to the original source would deliver the same content/curation value for the reader.
But it wouldn’t produce the same value for the publisher. To get maximum value the publisher has to re-host the content. I’m using this term to emphasize that it’s not about the act of publishing—the posting—it’s about owning where the content lives. On one hand this is obvious but on the other I think it’s worth calling out, as the common term “re-posting” sort of obfuscates the real motive.
And of course now we get to the most obvious point of all, which is that the reason to re-host someone else’s content is so you can sell ads against it.
This is probably twisting the knife but if you were unlucky enough to have clicked that Newsweek link above, this is what you might have seen. This:
And after closing that this:
And after closing that this:
And then you would to get to the page itself, where the majority of real estate is dedicated to more ads.
This is the part that feels slimy, that on Quora there’s this community of benevolent knowledge sharing where all the parties involved—Quora, the people asking the questions, the people answering, the people upvoting the answers—are creating value, and then publishers harvest the fruit and sell it off to advertisers without making any contribution of their own.
Regarding the question I asked at the beginning of the post, whether this behavior represented something new, I’m not sure. To me it definitely _feels_ a little different but it wouldn’t be hard to argue for the opposing view.
In the long run I worry that this sort of uninhibited content duplication just accelerates the deflationary spiral, eliminating whatever scarcity value web content has left.
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