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

4/21/11Follow @wroush

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unauthorized republishing of full Web pages were to spread beyond the underground world of webspammers, the annoyance for copyright owners would be serious. And when you add the prospect that bolted content could be modified in ways that the creators can’t control—possibly to their embarrassment—you’re almost asking for a backlash from publishers, even if (as Roche says) all the links in the bolted pages lead back to the original site, and all of the page views and ad clicks accrue to the original publisher.

Bolt’s genetic roots are in the area of online marketing: the Roches previously ran a company called Offermatica that offered A/B testing tools for measuring the effects of changes in websites, which they sold to Omniture in 2007 for $65 million. (Omniture was later purchased by Adobe Systems, and the Offermatica technology, now called Test&Target, is one of Adobe’s fastest-growing products.) Which makes it all the more strange that Bolt, which is backed by $5 million from Benchmark Capital, would portray its service as a social media tool and risk provoking the ire of Web content owners everywhere, when it could probably do quite well simply by pitching the software as a convenient publishing interface for marketers.

I raised all those questions during my visit. From Jamie Roche’s responses, I think the explanation here is that the Roches are driven by a certain amount of puckish ambition. They didn’t want to build just another publishing platform or A/B testing tool. “I want to serve up billions of pages a day,” Roche says.

They also envision a future where capital-p Publishers will willingly give up some control over their content in exchange for a wider reach. Speaking about the prospect that Bolt users will copy and modify content from mainstream publications, Roche says, “It does suggest a breakdown of hierarchies in the future, but it also allows good content to be propagated. It allows people to remove an article that might be on The Economist and put it on TMZ. That might not be comfortable. But that’s your job, to get the content out there. I think the long-term story is going to be an extension of the reach, not the distortion of the message.”

The Roches’ love affair with the Web is a long, tumultuous one. Jamie Roche, now 45, says the boys grew up in a house full of computers; for his eighth birthday, Matt, now 43, asked for a ticket to an Apple Computer conference. Jamie was working at Silicon Graphics in 1994 when he got a demo of the Mosaic browser, the forerunner to Netscape Navigator, from Jim Clark himself. Later the brothers went into business together, starting a tech consulting operation called Fort Point Partners that built e-commerce sites for Fortune 500 companies. The company raised $50 million in venture backing and was two weeks away from an IPO in mid-2000 when the markets collapsed, Roche says.

Fort Point shed 392 of its 400 employees and relaunched as Offermatica, with a focus on hosted A/B testing tools. E-commerce companies use A/B testing to create alternative versions of websites, varying elements such as prices and product descriptions to see what leads to the most sales; it’s still a hot area today, with startups such as Optimizely offering easy, Bolt-like ways to modify the Web pages being tested. After selling the Offermatica business to Omniture, the Roches considered starting a non-profit venture fund (which turned out to have major tax disadvantages) and a distributed power storage company (too political—it’s hard to get permits you need to put a giant battery in every garage).

So they came back to what they really cared about, “which was to help … Next Page »

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

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