Mark's Musings

A miscellany of thoughts and opinions from an unimportant small town politician and bit-part web developer

Grant Shapps, (snake) oiling the wheels of IP reform


I blogged a couple of days ago about the fact that Grant Shapps, the new Conservative party chairman, turns out to have founded a company dedicated to selling SEO snake oil. The point of that article wasn’t particularly to criticise him, it was more to do with the fact that one of his company’s websites had inadvertently revealed just how useless the kind of stuff it sells is.

I commented at the time that “it’s probably rather embarrassing for Mr Shapps to be linked with this kind of stuff”, but, in retrospect, I doubt he’s embarrassed at all. You have to have a pretty thick skin to deal in black hat SEO techniques, and an equally thick skin to be successful in politics, so it’s more likely to be just water off a duck’s back. And, although I don’t use the kind of techniques he sells, I don’t think there’s anything which is particularly morally wrong with making money out of them. If someone is determined to use black hat SEO, then why not sell them the tools?

What’s more interesting, though, is the nature of the tools that HowToCorp (the company founded by Mr Shapps) sells. One, in particular (and the one that I blogged about the other day), is what’s called a “content spinner”. In the parlance of the black hat wearing SEO consultant, that means a program which takes content, such as an online article, and then “spins” it in order to produce another article which can then be indexed by Google as if it were original. For example, look at this page, and then this one – the second is the same article rewritten by machine (on new technology).

Obviously, to do that you have to have content to begin with, and there are two main sources. Firstly, you can write it yourself. Or (and far more commonly) you can simply copy it from somewhere else. In the example above, the original comes from one of many “free ezine articles” websites that are themselves a common SEO tool – people write articles, then submit them for syndication in the hope that each publication will generate backlinks to their own website.

If the second website I linked to there was simply republishing the article as written, then it would be entirely legitimate – the articles are originally published with republication in mind, and that’s allowed – and even encouraged – by the terms and conditions of their source. But “spinning” them isn’t permitted. In fact, it’s explicitly prohibited.

What that means is that the second site I linked to is infringing copyright in the original article. And the second site is one of HowToCorp’s own network of spun content websites.

Plenty of people are up in arms about that. I’m not one of them. I don’t like the plagiarism inherent in using spun third party content, and if pressed I’d probably call it morally wrong. But I’m a lot more relaxed about the copyright infringement aspect.

The thing which alerted me to this story was, as it happens, a tweet from Loz Kaye, the leader of the Pirate Party UK:

@grantshapps in IP infringement row: Can’t promise campaign to save minister or his wife.

Now, I’m no copyright abolitionist, but I think that Mr Kaye was possibly missing a trick here. Content spinning may be the sordid underbelly of copyright challenge, but a challenge it nonetheless is. It’s impossible, morally or rationally, to defend content spinning without also defending other forms of challenge to existing copyright laws such as filesharing. If Mr Shapps is being anything like consistent, then he has to be as much in favour of the latter as he is of his own actions.

Obviously, moral consistency is by no means guaranteed in politicians. But there’s another intriguing link here. Grant Shapps happens to be the cousin of former Clash vocalist and guitarist Mick Jones. And Jones is currently a member of Carbon/Silicon, a band of which Wikipedia has this to say:

The formation of the band was catalyzed by the internet and file sharing. The first song written by Jones and James was entitled “MPFree,” in which they expressed their willingness to embrace the technology of the internet and file sharing, in the interest of spreading music, rather than profit.

I have no idea how close Jones and Shapps are. Maybe they go out every week for a beer, maybe they only see each other at family occasions, or maybe they never speak. And it could easily be just a coincidence that one cousin believes in freedom to share music, while the other only believes in his own freedom to share text. But maybe, just maybe, Grant Shapps really does come from a position of genuinely wanting to see reform of the UK’s onerous and anti-innovation intellectual property laws. If so, then his reputation as one of the Conservative Party’s rising stars could be even more significant.

So what are the thoughts of Mr Shapps when it comes to the likes of the Pirate Bay, I wonder? Anyway, here’s Carbon/Silicon performing ‘MPFree’: