This guide is based on UK law. It was last updated in April 2008.
To most people, RSS stands for 'Really Simple Syndication'. It is growing in popularity. It is a means of sharing content – usually headlines and a brief summary – between sites or from one site to an individual computer. So rather than subscribing to numerous email newsletters or visiting numerous websites and blogs for news, some internet users run an RSS reader, a simple piece of software that aggregates content from third party sources that offer RSS feeds, such as websites and blogs. See, for example, OUT-LAW's choice of RSS feeds. Websites can also display the output of other sites' RSS feeds.
Offering your own RSS feed
When you offer your own content in an RSS feed, be aware that it becomes difficult to know who is using the feed, how they are using it and how many are using it. If you want to control its use, you can dictate your conditions, otherwise you are in a weak position if you later object to someone's use of your material. Some RSS feeds are offered under the terms of the Creative Commons licence while others set their own terms or none at all.
Be aware that a third party website might aggregate and display the output of your free feed and others like it and then charge its own visitors for access or profit from adverts that surround the output of your RSS feed. If you object to such uses, you should say so in your conditions of use.
However, adding conditions of use interferes with the one-click simplicity of adding an RSS feed to a reader, so this is a judgement call for any site. We decided against imposing conditions for the use of OUT-LAW.COM's RSS feeds but we limit the content to a headline, a date and a single paragraph of text and abuse of our content is likely to infringe our copyright.
Most RSS feeds sensibly avoid offering the full content of articles. This helps the user decide what to read without scrolling through long texts; it gives people a reason to come to your site; and it protects the copyright in your content. So the content offered in RSS is usually a collection of headlines and brief summaries that link to the full versions on the site that offers the RSS feed.
Be aware that when you offer a feed, recipients might assume you are waiving copyright in the content in the feed, unless you state otherwise. In any event, the content that appears in some feeds might be too insubstantial to qualify as copyright infringement (though continuing, systematic abuse will be easier to stop).
We recommend that you ask your developers to include a copyright notice – e.g. © Pinsent Masons 2007 – in the final line of the Item Description field with a link back to your own site's copyright notice. It does not change the legal position, but it can help to assert your rights, particularly since RSS is a cold medium, usually free from branding, by comparison to email newsletters.
There are also security risks with RSS feeds to be aware of – albeit only theoretical. Many blogs allow the posting of comments by readers. A reader could include malicious code in a post and it could get forwarded to an office computer that subscribes. However, at the time of writing, there has been no known case of an RSS exploit.
Using a third party RSS feed on your site
Most providers of RSS feeds are happy to have their feeds displayed on third party websites. However, if you plan to display adverts next to a third party's RSS feed, or otherwise profit from the feed, we recommend that, ideally, you seek permission from the provider.
At the very least you should check the sites whose feeds you want to use for conditions of use for their RSS feeds or, if there are no such conditions, the site's copyright notice. Even in the absence of any prohibition in these notices, you're safest course of action is to approach each site for permission. That's not to say you'll definitely get sued for following your plan without permission from each party; it's just that you run a risk.
If conditions forbid commercial use of a feed, request permission before using the feed on anything other than a personal website. Commercial use does not only mean that you are selling access to the feed or surrounding the feed with advertising; any use on the website of a business can also be a commercial use.
Risks of using a third party RSS feed on your site
Once you add a third party RSS feed to your website, you place your trust in that third party publisher. You cannot control what that feed will display. In March 2008, three French publishers were punished because they ran an RSS feed that contained a controversial story. It is unlikely that a UK court would follow that ruling.
See also: Legal info about user-generated content