Opinion

John C. Abell

Don’t beat the news innovators, join them

April 4, 2011

Zite

Getting a cease and desist letter isn’t exactly a laughing matter, but it often can be laughed off — even when it comes from lawyers representing 11 major media companies who say what your are doing is “plainly illegal” and you are a little startup using their copyrighted material in your little iPad magazine.

They aren’t exactly laughing it off, but the folks over at Zite are taking it all in stride, and, so far so good.

Zite recently joined a new breed of news apps designed for the iPad which are unique in at least two ways: None of the companies behind them gather news, and all seem infinitely better than the gatherers at distribution on a platform that is barely a year old. Among this group are Flipboard and Pulse — which make boring RSS feeds pretty — and Instapaper and Read It Later — pioneers in the “undesign” movement which do sort of the opposite, by taking a loud web page and serving up the core text in a bookish way.

Just like Google forced an issue by scanning books and then waiting for people to complain, these new media innovators are shooting first and asking permission later. The New York Times tried (and failed) to get Pulse pulled from Apple’s iTunes store because their RSS feed is pre-loaded in the app. And last week nearly a dozen publishing heavyweights jointly sent a lawyer’s letter to Zite to … do something different.

Those 11 included Advance Publications, the company that owns Conde Nast, which owns wired.com, where I work. The others are The Associated Press, Dow Jones & Company, Inc., Gannett Co., Inc., Getty Images, The McClatchy Company, the National Geographic Society, The E.W. Scripps Company, Time Inc., The Slate Group, and The Washington Post.

To Zite CEO Avi Zarr, all that meant was pushing the reader from a snippet to the original web site rather than presenting the same information on a reformatted, some might say cleaner page.

“If the formal cease and desist we received from the big publishing companies yesterday was a one line e-mail from the world’s smallest blogger, we would treat it exactly the same: we would switch the content from reading mode to web view mode. That’s it.” Zarr said in a blog post. “This is not our legal position, it’s just our policy. Zite is eager to work with publishers in a way that benefits everyone – most importantly end users.”

The real story is what happens next: Will news media giants find a way to protect their interests while entrepreneurs unbeholden to them refresh the news business, or will they go the way of the music industry, which values property rights over any good idea which isn’t theirs?

As GigaOm’s Matthew Ingram elegantly argued, it’s easy to get caught up in the wrong details as old media business models clash with new realities.

“The bigger issue here isn’t whether such apps and services are breaking the letter of the copyright law by reformatting content — it’s whether any media outlets are learning anything from what apps like Zite and Flipboard are doing, apart from how to file legal threats,” Ingram wrote.

Legal threats are a fact of life, but these new aggregators are on far more solid ground than the Google Books Project, which came to terms with many rights holders if not an important judge. Or, for that matter, every web news aggregator, including Google and HuffPo and Yahoo and …

Sometimes, in the absence of settled law, it is better to apologize than ask permission. And sometimes it’s better to look past the threat for evidence of common ground. While the lawyer’s letter to Zite is sternly worded, it does end on a hopeful note.

“We encourage and support the development of new technologies that facilitate innovative uses of our content — but those uses must be subject to our advance consent. We welcome any opportunity for open discussions among members of the relevant industries and the public to develop solutions that can promote appropriate uses of our content into the future.”

While the future of news is going to make for some strange and unexpected bedfellows, the future is now.

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