Displaying other people's RSS feeds on your website (a.k.a. "syndicating") is an easy way to get an automated stream of fresh content for your site. But is it ethical? There are actually two ethical questions involved:

1) Are you "injuring" the publisher of the content?

2) Are you "injuring" third parties?

(Required disclaimer: I'm not a lawyer, so don't take anything I write here as legal advice).

Since you're reproducing content someone else owns the copyright to (when you produce original content, you automatically own the copyright), question #1 is not only an ethical question, but a legal question. And it's one that people disagree on.

Since RSS was originally invented to enable syndication, some people argue that publishing content in an RSS feed implicitly authorizes others to syndicate it, at least if it's done appropriately. In most cases, as long as you syndicate in a way that benefits the publisher, that appears to be a safe assumption.

A few of the generally accepted rules for syndicating ethically to avoid injuring the publisher include:

  1. not syndicating feeds that explicitly forbid it and honoring all requests to stop syndicating feeds (pretty obvious).
  2. not syndicating the full content of feeds that contain full content (just display an excerpt)
  3. always linking to the original source of the content (ALWAYS -- don't skip this one)
  4. linking in a way that's visible to the search engines (eg. don't use 'rel="nofollow"' in your link tags or use JavaScript links)
  5. caching the RSS feed locally on your server so that you're not using the publisher's bandwidth to reload it every time someone loads your webpage (this isn't just an ethical issue -- it speeds up your website significantly too)

Notice how if you follow the rules 2, 3 and 4, you're actually benefiting the publisher by:

  • sending traffic to their site (you can make their site open in a new window if you want).
  • giving them a boost in the search engines by giving them in-bound links (and this can help your search engine rank too since the search engines like sites that link to content related to their keywords).

What about third parties? The clearest example of how syndication may either help or hurt a third party is the search engines: are you wasting their resources by making them index duplicate content, and decide between alternative sources of that content when their users do a search? Or are you syndicating in a way that adds value and helps them find the best content for their users?

Reader Comment:
Antone Roundy said:
That makes sense. BTW, When I said "easy", I meant that a PHP programmer shouldn't have any trouble hacking WordPress to make it possible to, for example, exclude some posts from a special RSS feed used only for syndication. There may even be plug...
(join the conversation below)

I see a value continuum for syndication. Here are a few ways of using RSS feed content that I consider ethical, roughly ordered from most valuable to least:

  1. Syndicating RSS feed content that was hand-picked for quality and relevance along side valuable, related, original content. This requires using some sort of tool to watch RSS feeds for good content and select which of it is display alongside which of your content.
  2. Syndicating content from RSS feeds that were hand-picked for quality alongside your original content (valuable and related content, of course -- I won't keep repeating that). Since only the feed is hand-picked, not each individual content item, the value is a little lower than #1.
  3. Syndicating search-based content from an aggregator that ranks the quality of the search results alongside original content (for example, using blog search results from a search engine that lists items in a quality ranked order as opposed to random or time-based order).
  4. Aggregating hand-picked related items from multiple feeds (with no original content -- adding useful commentary to each item would be better).
  5. Aggregating related content from multiple hand-picked RSS feeds (no original content).

Anything less than that doesn't add value, just wastes resources, and doesn't pass ethical muster in my mind. For example:

  • Syndicating randomly selected related RSS content alongside original content (regardless of the quality of the RSS content).
  • Syndicating any RSS content alongside poor quality content to try to get the poor content ranked higher.
  • Syndicating unrelated content alongside any content to try to get the content ranked higher (which might be possible, since the auto-updating RSS content increases the overall freshness of the page).
  • Publishing pages comprised solely of content from a single RSS feed (no matter what the quality -- it's purely duplicate content).
  • Publishing pages comprised solely of syndicated content aggregated from multiple feeds without regard to the quality of those feeds (bringing together multiple sources of related content can be useful, but only if it's useful content).

As the publisher of an RSS syndication script (CaRP Evolution), I've always encouraged my users to syndicate ethically. Of course I know that not all do, which is disappointing. I just hope those that those who don't don't tarnish the names of those who are benefiting publishers and creating value for others by syndicating ethically.