Bo.lt Lets Anyone Clone and Rewrite Web Pages; The Elephant in the Room is Copyright

4/21/11Follow @wroush

From its beginning, the World Wide Web has been a deliberately transparent, copyable medium. I’m not just talking about the fact that it’s easy to copy and paste text or images from a website; in almost every browser since Mosaic, users have also had the ability to click the “view source” menu item to see the full HTML markup. That’s provided a great way for Web developers to learn, since they can simply view the source code to see how an interesting page layout was constructed. It’s also been a bonanza for webspammers, who like to clone whole pages as a way to divert search traffic.

Indeed, for good or ill, copyability is a very powerful thing—the fact that digital music is so easy to copy has helped to overturn a whole industry. But up to today, oddly, nobody has really taken the Web’s copyability as a starting point for building new communications tools.

Now that’s changing. Today a San Francisco startup called Bolt introduced an easy way for absolutely anyone to clone, modify, and republish a Web page. You could do it right now with this Xconomy page, by going to www.bo.lt and pasting the page’s URL into the site’s “Copy It” bar. Bolt would create a perfect copy of the page, ads and all, but with a key difference: Bolt’s software allows you to change anything you want, just as if you were editing a word-processing document. Don’t like the headline? Click on it and rewrite it. Think the piece is too long? Delete a few paragraphs. When you’re done, Bolt saves the modified page under a new address, which you can then share via social media.

Why on earth would you want to do that? And isn’t the existence of such a tool anathema to publishers who, well, how to put this delicately—don’t really want everyone messing around with their copyrighted content?

Those were exactly my questions when I visited Bolt’s glittering Pier 3 offices last week to meet with the startup’s co-CEO, Jamie Roche. (The other co-CEO is Jamie’s brother Matthew.) It turns out that there’s a pretty interesting and logical use for this technology. It involves organizations where non-techies—think real estate agents or salespeople—need to build lots of similar Web pages for marketing purposes by changing small things here and there. Bolt lets them do that without waiting for help from their IT departments (if they even have them). In effect, it’s an alternative publishing platform that helps non-experts build big, content-rich websites without knowing a thing about databases or HTML. That’s how architectural publisher Houseplans.com, vacation rental site Second Porch, and travel company Smart Destinations are already using Bolt (whose logo is an elephant with a lightning bolt for a tusk).

Confusingly, however, Bolt is also portraying its software as a new social media tool for average consumers. Jamie Roche says “Web pages are becoming social objects” and talks about how “sharing a whole page is better than sharing a link.” The company argues that pages that have been “bolted”—i.e., copied, modified, and republished via the Bolt service—are more likely to be retweeted, liked on Facebook, and forwarded. “Your pages become more engaging and compelling through the participation of the consumers of the content,” Bolt claims in its own marketing material.

Perhaps so—but this is where I think the company’s technology is likely to attract a nasty, entirely avoidable stampede of objectors.

It’s usually a copyright violation to republish other people’s text and code, with a few exceptions for practices such as parody. Under the fair use provisions of copyright law, it’s permissible to excerpt short sections of published works. But if the … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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