Mailing list discussions are not free content for your blog

Quick: if you’re part of a mailing list and there’s a splendid discussion, a really informative back and forth dialog that transpires, can you copy and paste both sides of the discussion on your weblog without requesting permission?
This very topic arose on the LinkedIn Bloggers mailing list — a list that has some minimal member requirements and closed list archive — and generated what I thought was a surprisingly wide range of answers.
I spent some time on list trying to clarify my own thoughts on this matter, detailing where I believe it’s acceptable to quote others without permission and when I believe it’s imperative that you seek and receive permission before quoting even a single sentence. I’d like to include my thoughts here on my weblog too, for more general reference purposes and to hopefully spawn some dialog on this topic too.
The discussion started out with the following question…


“I presume everyone agrees that you have a right to post a conversation to a blog entry [where you were one of the participants]. How do you handle the other person’s part of the conversation? Do you ask permission? Do you attribute? Do you notify them?”
Here’s my response:
If I encounter a cogent comment in a public venue, I believe that it’s acceptable use to excerpt or quote that comment – with credit and a back link – on my own weblog.
If the comment was in a private venue, such as this mailing list, I always privately email the author and request permission to quote them on my weblog.
This is true across the many, many lists I’m on, and I’m 100% about this, every time. Every so often someone says that they’d prefer I don’t and I’m good to my word: I just delete my draft posting and come up with a different topic.
I think that this is where professionalism and trust are so important. If we can’t rely on everyone on LinkedInBloggers (or any other mailing list) to respect the privacy of our venue, well, then some of us aren’t going to be quite so forthcoming in what we’re sharing, and others might just leave directly.
On some of the very best lists I’m involved with there’s a written agreement that makes quite explicit the privacy of the discussion with a zero tolerance for mistakes. One list in particular, focused on Internet-based entrepreneurs, is the cornerstone of my digital work in many ways, and it’s less than 75 people. I’ve seen more than one person kicked out of the group for violating this strict community behavioral standard and I appreciate our strict guidelines which foster a terrific sense of openness.
Having said all of that and waved my SuperBloggerPomPomstm I have to admit that I also recognize that inspiration and ideas come from just about anywhere and it’s unrealistic to ask permission for everything you encounter, even on private lists. What I’ll do, however, is reinvent what someone’s saying rather than using the dubious “A fellow blogger” or similar.
I had an example of this arise this very evening, actually; in a message on a very different topic, an exceedingly bright colleague of mine casually contrasted “bloggers” with “business people who blog” and that’s really sparked some ideas in my head that I’m working on capturing digitally.
But even then, even with just a single sentence inspiring me, I still took the time to email him back, saying “A superb differentiation: bloggers versus “business people that blog”. Let me rattle that around, I might write about that on my weblog, in fact…” to which he replied “blog away!”
To summarize, I suggest that a good community guideline for the blogosphere is that even if the mailing list archives are open and public, and even if the mailing list is open to any and everyone, it’s a good habit and nice touch of professionalism to always contact the authors whose material you seek to republish, requesting permission to do so.
Oh, and there’s a nice secondary benefit too: sometimes you can open up an extraordinary dialog with the other party that can lead to a deeper appreciation and even the possibility of joint projects. I’ve had both happen during the past year.
The basic rule I’m proposing is easy to remember: respect the right of other list members to own their words and always act accordingly.

5 comments on “Mailing list discussions are not free content for your blog

  1. Just say no to list poaching!
    There’s a public listserv I’m on that often comes up with some good food for thought. If I’m just referencing the topic, I say something like, “today, the listserv[link] was full of conversation about X. Here’s my take on it.” If I want to refer to or quote from an individual post, I always ask the person first. It’s a matter of respect, I think, even though the listserv posts are open to anyone to read. This of course goes even more so for private listservs.
    Another thing that shouldn’t have to be said but, since it just happened to me again recently, I’ll say it: Content posted to a blog is not free for the taking, either. Another blog, or a magazine, or any other media, can’t take someone’s blog post and use it without permission and attribution. Duh.
    Dave, I’d be curious to know what you think about the privacy of e-mail in response to a blog comment–I had a private exchange with a blogger about a post, and my e-mail ended up on his blog. I was very taken aback to have something privately sent show up in public (with attribution) without first being asked. (If I wanted to make a public comment, I would have on his blog.) I consider e-mail to be private unless permission is given to use it, but obviously, not everyone does.

  2. You make good points Dave and Sue. What I’ll do is just cite Andrew’s own comments since he’s the only person I’ve asked and received permission to cite and present my take on it since that’s what many of my blog readers want anyway.
    Here’s something I noticed recently. A friend forwarded an email to me and I noticed in his signature there was this line:
    OK to blog? [ ]Yes [ ] No
    with an “X” in the Yes box. I had not seen that before. Particularly with people who blog, is something like necessary? Is it appropriate?

  3. Sue, thanks for your note. I think that someone who takes email and turns it into a blog posting is violating netiquette, at least, if not common privacy expectations. I’d email him and express your unhappiness with the sequence of events.
    Also, Lee, what you highlight is an interesting idea and I’ve seen it too, but my concern is that it’s too easy to forget you have it as your signature and then leave users confused: does what you show mean that it IS or IS NOT okay for me to blog the associated message?

  4. Overall, I now start with the expectation that you’ll see everything you write or say in print even though maybe you wouldn’t want to, or shouldn’t expect to.
    It’s like hearing a client saying to a journalist “it’s off the record.” Well, you know that after a while everything is on the record to the writer. They forget what is, and isn’t, useable. And if they don’t use it they tell someone else, and they use it. Basically, I think that you don’t want to be quoted, or don’t want to allow that infomation or comment, wider circulation: don’t say it, send it, or post it. Simple. If irritating.
    For the user, it just comes down to discretion and judgement. A friend sends me an email. I use some info in it(http://www.perceptric.com/blog/_archives/2005/9/15/1227284.html) because it makes a nice point. No harm done. No big deal.
    Yet, he tells me something private about himself or his business, and I’m going to ask whether I can use it. And working stuff into blogs, or bulletin boards, weren’t we all taught in school to attribute?
    Mainly now, there just seems to be a casualness about using other material that is really hard to reconcile with good manners or behaviour. But there you go. How times change.

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