WordPress Introduces Post Embedding

WordPress LogoYesterday, the developers behind WordPress announced the release of version 4.4 of their content management system (CMS), the platform that powers this site along with over 25% of the Web.

The stars of the update including responsive images, a new default theme and the introduction of the REST API to help WordPress developers build upon and extend WordPress.

However, one new feature that hasn’t been getting as much focus is the new “Embed Everything” feature this makes it easy for WordPress users to embed posts from other WordPress sites.

While the title of the feature may perk a few ears, the actual tool itself likely isn’t any danger to creators and, in some cases, may be a significant benefit. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some interesting legal and ethical questions surrounding the new feature.

Making Embeds Easier

WordPress has been working to simplify content embedding since version 4.0 released in September 2014. Using the oEmbed standard, WordPress users can trivially embed a wide variety of material to their site including content from YouTube, Twitter, Soundcloud and Flickr among others.

The process works by simply copy and pasting the URL of the content you want into your post and WordPress will query the page, grab the embed code and insert it for you. No need to hunt for the correct code and paste it in by hand.

What’s new in version 4.4 is that WordPress users can now trivially embed content from other WordPress users’ posts, provided both sites are running version 4.4 (or higher). The embed itself features three elements:

  1. Featured Image: A prominent featured image is displayed above the text content if it is available in the original post.
  2. Post Title: The title of the embedded post is displayed and linked back to the source
  3. Snippet: A short snippet of the post below the title. The exact word count varies on what content is available in the original post.
  4. Metadata: Below all of that, the post embed includes a link back to the original bock, a comment count and a button to embed the post elsewhere.

Put it all together, the embed looks like this:

Apps: The Future of Copyright Infringement

Or like this without a featured image:

WordPress 4.4 “Clifford”

All in all, the process is pretty straightforward but the question has to be asked: Is it legal and ethical?

The legality and Ethics of Embedding

Normally, embedding doesn’t pose any really serious copyright or ethical issues. When you upload to YouTube or SoundCloud, you’re aware that your content can be embedded and agree to it as part of the terms of service. Furthermore, in most cases, you can turn embedding off if you desire.

With WordPress though, it’s different. When I created my site, I didn’t sign on to a terms of service that allowed my content to be embedded nor has that been a common practice. While article embedding is not new, Embed Article/Embed Anything was doing it in 2010, it’s never been a common practice as it has on YouTube, SoundCloud, etc.

However, I think WordPress ducks most of the legal issues that might come with embedding by making sure the embeds won’t likely be copyright infringing. The inclusion of a thumbnail of the featured image, a headline and a a snippet of text doesn’t really raise any significant copyright issues. Furthermore, the feature doesn’t hotline any images from the original server, instead pulling from a WordPress-operated server, further reducing any legal issues.

On the other hand, there are still some interesting ethical questions that need to be weighed.

First, WordPress doesn’t give a simple way to opt out of having your content embedded. The only way to do so is through a Disable Embeds plugin, which you have to download and install. There is no setting or toggle for this.

Second, many WordPress users aren’t going to be expecting to see their posts as embeds. As I said, we’ve gotten used to linking to relevant articles, not embedding them. Other than the release notes, there’s not much clear warning that this version of WordPress could have a drastic change in the way other sites use your content.

While I don’t think it’s a bad change, I recognize others will not be of the same mind as me and I feel that they should, at the very least, have clear warning about the change and a simple way to opt out.

Unfortunately, WordPress didn’t really do either in this case. Meaning a lot of webmasters could be in for a surprise the first time they see their articles embedded.

Will it Find Use?

However, the issues above will be pretty meaningless if no one makes significant use of it and, to that end, I’m skeptical that they will. Various companies have been trying different approaches to make article embedding take off but they’ve never had much luck.

The reason is that we’re already used to linking to blog posts. With limited exceptions such as WordPress.com (A WordPress-based service operated by Automattic) and Tumblr, both of which have built in reblagging functions, there just isn’t a lot of text embedding going on.

But even within WordPress.com and Tumblr, all of the embedding is taking place within the same, clearly defined ecosystem. A Tumblr user knows they can easily reblog other Tumblr posts. With self-hosted WordPress, that ecosystem is much more poorly defined.

It can be difficult to tell what platform a site uses by looking at it and, even if you can, it needs at least version 4.4. While Wordpress users tend to be pretty good about staying up to date on the latest version, there’s still a sizable percentage that lags behind.

As such, it’s tough to know which sites you can embed from and which you can’t, made worse by the fact that the embeds do not seem to work with WordPress.com-hosted sites.

While WordPress certainly has some advantages, in particular when it comes to the volume of sites that use it, there’s just too much friction when it comes to article embeds and too much uncertainty about what can be embedded.

In short, why try to embed an article when any site on any platform can be linked to? That’s the question WordPress and its users need to answer for this feature to be a success.

Bottom Line

Overall, I think the embedding system is a great idea. I’m more than happy to have my content embedded this way and I suspect many others will too. However, I still don’t think the system will see much use and, if it does, others are going to feel differently about it than I.

To me though, the worst part about this system is the way it was implemented. WordPress made a major change in the way its users’ content will appear on other sites and it made the shift without providing a clear indication that it will change or offering even an opt out, let alone an opt in.

Basically, WordPress, a CMS, made a unilateral decision about how its users’ content will be handled on other sites. Even though I agree with the move and don’t feel it raises any serious legal issues, it’s still extremely presumptive.

WordPress will only continue to thrive through a partnership with the creators who use it. It ignores the wishes and control of its users at its own peril. With more and mare valid and compelling alternatives to WordPress already operating or coming online, WordPress needs to put content and content creators first.

Sometimes, that means asking permission and accepting that some, not thrilled with the changes you’re making, will opt out.

At least those who opt out will stay in the WordPress fold.

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