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Online Advertising and Content Ownership: In Which I Have Questions for Patrick Healy

Patrick Healy, of Phacient

Patrick Healy, the proprietor of Phacient, is a longtime friend from benighted Onboard days, through doing Lucky Strikes Social Media Club (which he has taken leadership of), and general RE.net camaraderie. He posted his thoughts on the whole syndication brouhaha on his blog, which was then picked up by GeekEstate.

His point is that real estate brokers and agents shouldn’t fight the portals, since the portals are providing online advertising for free… with an option to upgrade. And he reasons that if realtors should be upset at anyone, it should be at themselves for not doing enough to compete with the portals.

The money grafs:

The fact of the matter is, these sites are not the bad guys. They built an environment where consumers come to where they can learn, interact and shop. And they are doing it well. There is nothing wrong here. You are not really upset that these guys are selling leads. That’s what they set out to do. Should they be providing these sites as a public service? Of course not. You are not upset with these folks that are buying the leads off your listing pages. You probably do it too, on that site or somewhere else in some way shape or form. Who you are really pissed off at is yourself. You’re mad because these sites have created a more open and free market for your competition to better compete with you in your market. You’re mad because you either don’t get the technology, don’t want to spend the money, or don’t want anyone competing in your space. None of these reasons are valid in my opinion because you reap the same benefits in the other direction.

I have some questions on this.

The Reasoning

Patrick arrives at the above conclusions by reasoning as follows:

  • Listings are advertisements
  • Most advertising-supported sites, such as the nytimes.com, get paid no matter what
  • The portals provide advertising exposure for free
  • You can always upgrade the advertising

For example, he writes:

By this point, you have probably figured out that I am leading you somewhere and in a bit of a sarcastic fashion. Realistically, there are not a lot of places you can go to get this solution. The irony is, that you can get them all for free. Sites like Realtor.com, Yahoo! Real Estate, Zillow, and Trulia are free, at least at their basic levels. In fact, at the time of this post, the combined traffic of any two of the above mentioned sites is greater than the remaining top ten sites combined. Realtor.com actually gets your listings directly from the MLS which you are a member of and you don’t have to do ANYTHING to take advantage of it. With others, you have to at least go up and claim your listing, at most add it to their systems yourself. They are also free to use though. Depending on your preference, each has their strengths but they are all better than most other real estate sites and are certainly better than anything you could dream of developing on your own. We’re in agreement, right?

We are in agreement, that the portals are likely better than what most brokers and agents can develop and maintain on their own.

What I wonder about is whether Patrick will agree with me that even though the listings are advertisements, they do represent intellectual property of the listing broker. And what I wonder is whether that aspect needs to be taken into account.

Phacient’s Blog and Business

As an example, I note that Patrick is in substantially the same business I am in: selling advice and consulting services to the real estate industry. I assume that the blogging activities that Patrick engages in results in some sort of positive benefit to his business, as I know my blogging has for me. (This, despite the fact that I try very hard to keep Notorious free of commercial motivations, and a personal blog where I write about things like New Wave music and politics.)

For example, on Phacient’s corporate blog, I notice blogposts on subjects like reputation management, Facebook business pages, and social media’s impact on collaboration, as well as many others. All of them are directly relevant to Phacient’s business of selling advice on management, marketing, and technology. And I hope that Patrick is generating significant amount of calls and business inquiries from his blog.

In a very real way, these blogposts are advertisements for Patrick’s services. And I think this is particularly true since Patrick has a separate site where he muses and rants on personal things.

So here’s the question:

May I copy and repost wholesale all of Phacient’s posts (with a link back to Phacient’s website, of course, though… we’ll get to this) on one of my websites if my website has better traffic and Google rankings?

Because when this is done on the blogosphere, it’s usually referred to as “content theft”. The fact that the thief includes a link back to the original post doesn’t make it any better, since the “splog” itself has copied the entire original post, word for word.

I routinely have to go in and delete such splogs from my comments, and sometimes, I have to send out emails to proprietors notifying them that they are violating my copyright and ask them to take the post down. I don’t mind someone excerpting my posts, even big chunks of them, to make a point. But I do mind someone copying a post of mine wholesale, word for word, and then pretending to make up for it by including a tiny link buried at the bottom “Originally posted by Notorious Rob”. Or some such fig leaf.

But under Patricks’ theory of online advertising, it appears to me that the New York Times, for example, is fully justified in copying every single Phacient post word for word, as long as there is a backlink to Phacient.com, even if the NY Times then sells prominent placement on a Phacient blogpost by a competing consultancy and makes it appear as if the blogpost is from Joe Smith Consulting instead of from Phacient.  In fact, even if the link acknowledging Phacient as the source of the post, and Patrick as the author, should be buried at the very bottom of the blogpost being copied, while prominent placement of three other marketing, management, and technology consultants right at the top with calls to action (“Contact a Marketing Expert Now!”)… that should be just fine, since Patrick doesn’t have to pay the NYTimes for the benefit of all the free exposure that the NYTimes is giving one of his advertisements.

This should be the case even if the NYTimes then re-syndicates Patrick’s blogposts for undisclosed remuneration to 500 other websites, including a few that are extremely distasteful to Patrick and his customers, such that he gets angry phone calls from clients terminating the contract because one of his blogposts ended up on a porn and viagra website.

And should Patrick get upset about such a thing, he’s getting mad at the wrong person. He should instead be upset at himself for not setting up a website as good as the NYTimes.com.

Is that about right?

Because if so, boy, do I have a great new business model for Inman.com, or AGBeat.com, or any of the high-traffic, high-SEO real estate content websites out there.

Content Ownership

Even though I’m of the opinion that the Great Syndication War of 2010-2012 is now over, there is something to be said for understanding the core disputes.

Whether one thinks a brokerage like ARG, who pulled all listings from syndication, is right or wrong, one has to acknowledge that ARG owns the content in question: the listing. Whether you think of that listing as an advertisement or something else is irrelevant. Whether the consumer sees it as one thing or another is irrelevant, just like whether one of Phacient’s potential customers sees a Patrick blog post as an advertisement is irrelevant. What matters is how the content owner, the copyright holder, who put in the work to create that content in the first place, views that content.

In some cases, the content owner will think of it as pure advertising, and will happily send it to every corner of the globe to be published. That is his right as the content owner. Who cares if it ends up in DjiboutiForeclosures.com surrounded by ads for machetes? The copyright owner doesn’t care, so no one else should much care.

But if the content owner does in fact care, then his wishes should govern absolutely. He may choose to send the listing to one website over another; that decision doesn’t make the content owner an idiot railing against the unfairness of the world. Nor does it make the content owner some sort of dinosaur who doesn’t get online advertising. It just makes that content owner someone who has made a decision about what he wants to do and done to the content that he owns.

Patrick likely gave permission to GeekEstateBlog.com to repost his blogpost here. I assume he did, since he promoted the fact that it got picked up by GeekEstateBlog. Good for him, and good for GeekEstateBlog. But if GeekEstateBlog then put all sorts of ads for competing consultancies on his blogpost, perhaps Patrick might feel differently about that grant of permission to repost his blog. And should he choose at that point to withdraw that permission from GeekEstateBlog.com, I don’t think that means Patrick doesn’t get online advertising, nor do I believe that he should just be happy GeekEstateBlog.com is providing him free exposure. It’s his blogpost. He can do whatever he wishes with it.

Ads Are Content Too

Perhaps some would draw some sort of distinction between a pure ad and a mixed-use “content”. The blogpost, after all, isn’t just a description of a property for sale.

So what? Advertisements too are content, with owners, who spent time, energy and money creating those ads. I can no more violate that advertiser’s copyright than I can a filmmaker’s copyright, simply because the content in question is a commercial.

Advertisers have the absolute right to determine where, how, and in what fashion their ads will appear. They will negotiate those terms with publishers, and if they don’t get the terms they want, they won’t advertise — even for free. That doesn’t mean the advertiser is stupid for turning down “free exposure”; it means that there are negatives to even such “free exposure” that the advertiser decided outweigh the positives.

Of course, each one of us is free to form his own opinion on what is and is not the optimal strategy for advertising. But I will say this. I have never, do not, and will not grant permission to any content website to copy any of my content wholesale, even if that website has more traffic than this wee little blog, has better SEO rankings, and won’t charge me for the “free exposure”. If you want to repost one of my posts, go ahead and ask me; we’ll talk about it.

If any of you feel differently, and will happily allow a better, stronger, more trafficked website to repost one of your blogposts no matter what else they do with and to it, as long as you are getting free exposure and a backlink, do let me know. I’d be happy to start up a new program to give you all the free exposure you can handle.