The Download on Podcasts: CBC’s quixotic campaign against its own RSS feed

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Imagine a grocery store which puts out a free coffee bar for customers. Now image the grocery store accusing customers of shoplifting for using the coffee bar.

That’s the perception of a Cease & Desist letter reportedly sent by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) to podcast apps, ordering them to stop distributing CBC podcasts.¬†Reports of that letter started on Reddit, and were picked up by Cory Doctorow, who excoriated the CBC on BoingBoing.

The demand seems incongruous because CBC podcasts are attached to RSS feeds — RSS is an open standard which freely distributes content to any site or app which uses that RSS feed. It’s like a spigot that anyone can turn on, and through which content flows.

Does the existence of an RSS feed on CBC podcasts mean that CBC has implicitly given permission for podcast apps to distribute the CBC’s podcasts? Not necessarily, despite the seeming contradiction, and that’s where the CBC would disagree with our coffee bar comparison. In fact, the disagreement is explicitly laid out in the CBC’s Terms of Use.

These excerpts are from the CBC FAQ: “May I use CBC/Radio-Canada content? No, unless otherwise authorized.” Then, later: “Do these terms of use apply to news feeds (RSS)? Yes. These terms also apply to the use of CBC/Radio-Canada news feeds. Any use other than for private purposes must be subject to an agreement specifying the conditions for use with due regard for the integrity of the content. You agree not to frame the news feed or its content, nor to use similar means to generate unauthorized benefits.”

Legality aside, why would any podcast publisher seek to limit distribution? One reason is implied by the CBC letter, which invites inquiries about licensing. So, perhaps the CBC hopes to develop a revenue line around direct content licensing. That’s a gambit that would run contrary to the prevailing podcast model.

The flip side of that, though, is preventing app distribution that makes money for the app. Any app which sells premium accounts, for example, is earning revenue through the attraction of its content. It’s understandable that content creators might object, and withdraw their shows. there is a precedent: Two years ago PodcastOne (sponsor of this column) issued takedown demands to podcast app Stitcher for featuring some PodcastOne programs.

Stitcher “re-hosts” its podcast catalog, which removes all user analytics from the creator. Spotify does the same thing, RAIN News has been told. In those situations, there is an argument to be made by creators and original distributors to pull down content so its owners can maintain control of user metrics — often used to sell advertising. It might be a touch call to reduce audience in order to understand the audience better, but it’s not inexplicable.

In our quick survey, we easily located the CBC podcast¬†As It Happens in iTunes, Podbean, and other apps. Cory Doctorow and other observers say that the CBC should simply eliminate its RSS feeds. But there is no “should” here. Using RSS does not grant a blanket license for all uses. the CBC is entitled to define right use and wrong use, which it seems to be doing now. It might be suffering in the court of pundit opinion, but it’s on firm legal ground.


Brad Hill