Readability and Content Theft

John Gruber has brought some attention to Readability and, in his opinion, their sketchy actions regarding how they compensate content creators.

Readability is a service that allows you to save web pages to an app, so that you can view them later in a clean format without ads etc. You can also pay them to automatically deliver updates to these pages to your app automatically. The problem Gruber had with it is that this means if you run a website, you are stripped of any ad revenue from viewers who read the page on your website. Readability claims to pay 70% of any money they get from the subscription service they provide to content owners. But, he contends that they aren’t really making it easy to collect that money, but are benefitting from all the goodwill of claiming to.

I pondered more about this because of a comment made by Gruber on his podcast with Dan Benjamin, The Talk Show. He mentioned that if a magazine company were to collect a bunch of different articles from other sources, take just the content but not the ads and then sell it, those sources would be pissed. More than that, I thought, it would be copyright infringement. Copyright law protects content creators by giving them the right to control distribution of their content. Someone else can’t take an essay I write and republish it for profit. Nothing about changing the media from paper to the web changes that.

The key fact here is that when you get a new article in your Readability app, and you share that or go look at it, you are sent to a copy of that article on Readability’s servers, stripped of the ads, to make it easy to read. So, Readability has made a copy, which they host on their own servers.

The pertinent case on this is Perfect 10 v Google. Perfect 10 is a pornography company (side note: porn has a weird amount of intellectual property precedent establishing cases) that sued Google because Google included thumbnails of their images in Google’s image search service. Google would cache copies of the images on their servers to make search results faster. Google was protected largely because they were able to make a Fair Use defense. Namely that they are providing a service in image search that didn’t take away from Perfect 10’s profits.

I believe Readability would not be able to claim this same defense, since they are directly competing with displaying this content with the original content creators. Further, they are affecting the creator’s profits because the ads aren’t being viewed by readers.

This would be very worrisome, and recently Readability changed their software so that when you share a link it goes to the original content instead of the ad-free Readability version.

However, I was discussing this with a colleague, and he brought up that Readability could probably be protected under the DMCA safe habor provisions since users are the ones directing the service to remove the ads. Whether this is true even with subscription services is up for debate.