Is Content Curation Legal?

As content curation and aggregation grow, questions about legality, ethics, copyright and fair use continue to swirl about it.  Is content curation plagiarism?  Is content aggregation stealing?  These and other headlines testify to the murkiness surrounding curation and aggregation on the web.  I think this is fundamentally due to the disruptive nature of curation and aggregation on physical media.

 Legal Framework

There have actually been lawsuits filed with results that are now part of the case law in this area.  For a detailed look at the cases and actual legal points that are germane to curators and aggregators,  What’s the law around aggregating news online? A Harvard Law report on the risks and the best practices   from is the best I’ve found.  Read it and you will gain an understanding of ideas such as Fair Use, Copyright case law and ‘hot news misappropriation’  that make up the legal framework in this area.

The key takeaway is that this is still an uncertain and unsettled area of the law.  It is also not going to be settled any time soon, as the changes to journalism, news, curation and aggregation are still occuring and may have just begun.  The authors conclude with the 5 following steps that all aggregators and curators should follow to minimize any legal risk:

  1. Reproduce only those portions of the headline or article that are necessary to make your point or to identify the story. Do not reproduce the story in its entirety.
  2. Try not to use all, or even the majority, of articles available from a single source. Limit yourself to those articles that are directly relevant to your audience.
  3. Prominently identify the source of the article.
  4. Whenever possible, link to the original source of the article.
  5. When possible, provide context or commentary for the material you use.


Best Practices

If reading a legal article is not for you, or you would like to get more of a ‘real world’ view then  Content Curation: Copyright, Ethics & Fair Use by Pawan Deshpande the CEO of Curata is a great overview.

He provides an approachable review of the previous legal article, and adds another 7 best practices for any content curator or aggregator.  He then proceeds to grade several sites on their use of content curation best practices.  Very eye opening and a great look at real world content curation practices.

Another view of best practices comes from  The aggregator’s dilemma: How do you fairly serve your readers & the sources you rely on by 

Mallary talked with editors and publishers at several prominent new sites about their analysis and judgements that impact their aggregation strategies.  While the focus is on  aggregation in this piece, I found the nuanced discussions of editorial voice, types of content and respect for the original content very interesting.  I think it can help you think through your own content curation or aggregation strategies.

Curation and Aggregation as Disruptive Technologies

The article Aggregation and curation: two concepts that explain a lot about digital change by Mike Shatzkin was published back in 2009.  In it Mike identifies curation and aggregation as two key concepts driving the change in media businesses.

Every time I read a story about why newspapers are failing that doesn’t mention the role of aggregation and curation in their troubles, it reminds me that something very fundamental is being missed, even by very sophisticated observers.


Aggregation is one of the core concepts of content presentation and commercialization. Any analysis of what happened to the record business, what is happening to newspapers, or the future of books and bookstores and magazines and TV that does not feature this concept prominently is almost certainly flawed. Aggregation, of course, simply means pulling together things which are not necessarily connected.


Curation is a term that has always referred to the careful selection and pruning of aggregates, such as for a museum or an art exhibition. But the concept in the digital content world means the selection and presentation of these disparate items to help a browser or consumer navigate and select from them. Aggregation without curation is, normally, not very helful. Curation creates the brand.

I think this is a key reason why the legal and ethical framework around curation and aggregation is so unsettled.  We are in the midst of disruptive changes to the physical media environment of music, newspapers, TV and books.  Digital content can be broken down and subdivided almost endlessly.  This means that any specific element of content can be ‘captured’ and distributed in an endless variety of digital media.

The value of this to consumers is clear and is driving the process.  The roles of curators, aggregators, media, brands, content creators, publishers and everyone else in the ‘supply chain’ is constantly changing at this point.  As a result, I think we will continue to see best practices, ethics and even law evolve over time as this process plays out.  We’ll try to keep track of these issues over time on our blog.


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