Note to Media: Don’t Fight Zite, Learn From It

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In an entirely too-predictable development, a group of media outlets has sent a cease-and-desist letter to the creators of Zite, a magazine-style aggregator for the iPad. The publishers allege that by pulling in their content and displaying it in a more readable way — that is, without a lot of the extraneous website elements, including ads — Zite is guilty of copyright infringement. While this may be true in a legal sense, it ignores the bigger picture, which is that readers are looking for better ways of consuming content, and they aren’t getting it from traditional publishers. Why not learn from Zite and others like it instead of threatening to sue them?

The letter to Zite from the group, which includes the Washington Post and the Associated Press (the full letter is embedded below or you can read it here), uses the standard legal language about “damaging our businesses by misappropriating our intellectual property” etc., and says the company puts publishers at risk by “reformatting, republishing and redistributing our original content on a mass commercial scale.” Much of this is legal grandstanding, of course, since Zite is a tiny startup based in Vancouver, B.C. whose iPad app is probably used by a tiny handful of information junkies (including me).

But Zite isn’t doing anything that differently from plenty of other apps and services which are pulling in content from sites like the Washington Post and others named in the letter. Many apps that are essentially RSS-feed readers do this — including Pulse, which got slammed by the New York Times within hours of its public launch (although that dispute appears to have been resolved).

Readability is a web plugin that strips out advertising and other site features, leaving just text, and is so popular Apple built it into the company’s Safari browser as a viewing option. Why hasn’t anyone sent Apple a threatening letter about copyright infringement? Designer Marco Arment’s Instapaper does fundamentally the same thing — although he and Readability are also trying to use their services to generate income for sites through a kind of tip-jar model.

Some iPad apps provide a “web view” that effectively shows the entire originating news site in a browser window, but others such as Flipboard pull the RSS feed or scrape the site for content. Flipboard got in some hot water after it first launched as well, because it reformats and displays published content without ads or other website features, but it appears to have evaded the kind of legal threats that Zite has been hit with (Flipboard says it respects publishers’ wishes, and will remove or truncate feeds if a site asks, and Zite has said since receiving the letter that it will provide a full web view if publishers request it — CEO Ali Davar has posted a response here).

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. Amanda Natividad notes at PaidContent that as a content producer, she doesn’t like the implications of what Zite and others are doing, but as a reader she enjoys it because it is so much nicer to look at.

That’s the point the Washington Post and others are missing: As the way we consume media changes and evolves, a growing subset of their readers are looking for other ways to consume content through aggregators like Zite and Flipboard. Since no traditional media entity was smart enough to come up with those ideas first, why not figure out how to work with them or learn from them instead of just hitting them with C&D letters?

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