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

4/21/11Follow @wroush

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make the Web a better experience,” Roche says. The core of the idea for Bolt was about making life easier for salespeople, he says. “Kids understand how to tune their message when they’re talking to people. They look at you and they figure out if it’s working and they change.” Salespeople do the same thing—the difference is that if they’re communicating online, it’s very difficult to change course in mid-stream. “We have a customer who rents houses online, and they had one page they sent everyone to, even though they knew they should be showing different houses for people from different regions,” Roche says. “If you are in Portland you should be seeing houses in Oregon. But they couldn’t quite get to it. So we started talking about how they could use this thing to create custom pages for the regions. We helped them create 50-some custom pages in a couple of hours.”

To make all that work for regular customers, Bolt had to build some pretty deep technologies, including the cloning and editing tools and a network of edge servers, similar in conception to Akamai’s, that can deliver customized content to Web surfers quickly. The team eventually realized that without actually meaning to, they’d built a system that closes the gap between the marketers and the techheads inside a company. “Marketing guys work at a different gear ratio from tech people,” Roche says. “When you are going at social speed, a marketer might be launching 15 or 20 new campaigns a day”—and a complex e-commerce site just can’t be reauthored that fast. (Here you can see a clone of the Xconomy San Francisco front page that I made yesterday using Bolt. The startup is opening up the site to users gradually through an invitation system; the first 100 Xconomy readers can get access by clicking here:

Sites that have been tuned for specific social circumstances have a far better chance of getting noticed and promoted by visitors, Roche argues. During the Coachella music festival last weekend in Indio, CA, for example, the house rental company switched out its photos of mid-century modern houses in Palm Desert for properties that would hold more appeal for alternative-rock fans. Asks Roche: “Can you be responsive not just to the context but to the conversation? Can you do that so quickly and cheaply that it’s actually productive? Now you have a tool that allows you to do all this stuff at scale, inexpensively.”

So far, so good—if the pages you’re modifying belong to you in the first place. But why, then, would Bolt introduce itself, as it does in a press release today, as “a revolutionary new service that allows anyone to instantly copy, edit and share virtually any Web page, making it their own”? Is it a sign of just how distended the social-media bubble has become? Or is there something to Roche’s argument that encouraging people to grab and modify your copyrighted content is good karma, and actually helps to spread your message?

Well, clearly, there’s something to that argument—it’s the same one people like Lawrence Lessig, “free culture” advocates, and the Creative Commons organization have been making for years. But there’s no subroutine in the Bolt system that looks for a Creative Commons license before cloning a website. So I’m guessing that the Bolt technology is going to enable quite of mischief before this all settles out.

“What we are doing is not about simplifying life for the bad guys,” Roche insists. He argues that if someone’s going to clone your page, it’s actually better for you if they do it on the Bolt platform, since that way you get credit for the extra page views, ad click-throughs, et cetera. In addition, pages bolted by anonymous users have virtual stickers on them calling attention to the fact that they’re clones. “The cost,” Roche acknowledges, “is that they might do something you find damaging—which, by the way, is against the law, and as soon as it goes from fair use [to copyright violation] there is a remedy available.”

Of course, if someone copies an entire Web page, the situation has probably gone beyond fair use already. But in the end “you are going to get a lot more benefit than you are going to get harm out of this,” Roche promises. “Our feeling is that the Web is being liberated, sent around, and changed anyway. You can fight that, or not.”

I’m guessing that publishers will fight—and that Bolt will wind up modifying its own message to emphasize its software’s utility for marketers. The question is whether the company will move more like the elephant in its logo, or the lightning.

Xconomy goes the extra mile to bring you in-depth startup profiles. Compare this story to:

BO.LT Lets You Copy A Site Then Do With It What You Please (Huffington Post) launches an easy way to customize (almost) any Web page (VentureBeat)
BO.LT launches: to clone, change and share webpages in realtime (TheNextWeb)
Rip, Remix, Share . . . Websites? Startup BO.LT wants to give users power to change pages (AdWeek)
Page Sharing Service Lets You Copy, Edit And Share Almost Any Webpage (TechCrunch)

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

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