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 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 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: http://bo.lt/join?access=XCONOMY.)

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)
Bo.lt 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 Bo.lt Lets You Copy, Edit And Share Almost Any Webpage (TechCrunch)

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

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