Did the New York Times Just Declare War on News Aggregators?

Updated: The New York Times, like many newspapers, has been trying to find an online business model that works, including experimenting with iPhone and iPad apps, as well as a pay wall that’s expected to launch soon. Now, the newspaper company appears to be sending its lawyers after news aggregators that use its RSS feeds in commercial applications. According to a report from All Things Digital, the Pulse newsreader application for the iPad was pulled from the Apple store after a legal threat from the NYT over unauthorized use of the company’s RSS feeds. According to the email notice that Apple sent the developers of the app, the senior counsel for the newspaper said:

The Pulse News Reader app makes commercial use of the NYTimes.com and Boston.com RSS feeds, in violation of their Terms of Use. Thus, the use of our content is unlicensed. The app also frames the NYTimes.com and Boston.com websites in violation of their respective Terms of Use.

The newspaper’s lawyer also noted in his email that the Pulse app includes the New York Times feed when a user downloads the app, and that the newspaper’s feed is “prominently featured in the screen shots used to sell the app on iTunes.”

Ironically, the removal of the app came on the same day that Pulse was praised by Apple CEO Steve Jobs during his keynote presentation at the company’s Worldwide Developers Conference. The app was even written about positively by the New York Times itself, in a blog post that highlighted how easy Pulse was to use for browsing multiple news sources, and how the fact that it was a paid app should give media organizations hope that readers might pay for content on the iPad and other such devices.

It’s not clear why the New York Times decided to target the Pulse app, however, apart from the fact that it is (or was, until it was pulled) one of the most popular paid apps on the iPad. There are dozens of applications and services that do fundamentally the same thing as the news-reading app does, by pulling in the RSS feeds of media sites such as the New York Times — and many of them are paid applications, just as Pulse is. There are also many websites, including Yahoo and Google’s customized homepages, that allow users to embed RSS feeds from other sites.

What may have contributed to the complaint is that Pulse also has a view that shows the newspaper’s website inside a Pulse frame. Although there is no obvious advertising in the app, such framing of a site’s content has led to legal challenges against news aggregators in the past, including a high-profile case launched in 1997 by the Washington Post, CNN, Reuters and a number of other media entities against a site called TotalNews, which embedded news content from other outlets inside a frame.

Update: When asked whether the newspaper’s threats towards the Pulse news app were an indication that it would be pursuing other news aggregators as well, a spokesman for the New York Times told PaidContent that it would look at other situations “on a case-by-case basis.”

Update 2: The Pulse app has reappeared in the iPad app store, according to a tweet from one of the company’s founders, and it still contains New York Times content as it did before the complaint. It’s not clear why the app has been reinstated, but according to a post on the NYT Bits blog, the newspaper is not happy about it.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): What We Can Learn From The Guardian’s New Open Platform

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user bloomsberries

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