Craigslist, once the classic Internet disruptor, is suddenly finding that third-party companies are using its ads in new and interesting ways, and it's fighting back like any conventional media company -- with traditional copyright arguments.
The irony is delicious.
Last week, GigaOM reported on a lawsuit brought by Craigslist against a company called PadMapper, which had a great idea on how to enhance Craigslist ads by displaying apartment listings from Craigslist and others on a map, so you could see where the apartments were located.
On its face, PadMapper’s approach is creative and innovative by giving the straight text listings a visual context, but in practice it takes eyeballs away from Craigslist and drives them to the PadMapper site.
Craigslist could have reacted by welcoming the mashup idea and encouraging others to build similar applications on top of the Craigslist site. It could have tried a partnership with PadMapper. It could have hired developers to create a similar service in order to squeeze out the upstarts.
But it didn't do any of those things. Instead, Craigslist took the cowardly route of traditional big media companies. Claiming ownership of all the ads on its site under copyright law, it went to court. Sound familiar? As The Who once sang: "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss!"
For some time now, I've been fascinated by the notion of disruption on the Internet. We have seen how Internet technologies have steamrolled big media, but now we are seeing a new wave of disruption, in which the original disruptors like Craigslist are suddenly the established players; and when faced with a disruptive agent, they are reacting in exactly the same way as their predecessors.
For many print properties, the emergence of Craigslist, a free online classified platform, in the late 90s, marked the death knell for newspapers as we had known them. Newspapers made a great deal of their income from classified ads, and when that was taken away, it had a huge impact.
Craigslist wasn't the only disruptive force, of course. It was one of many in play, but it was a significant one. Now, with the shoe on the other foot, Craigslist is demanding an exclusive license to the ads on its site. Much like the traditional media companies it helped undermine, instead of embracing a new wave of change, Craigslist has decided to bring out the lawyers.
Interestingly, the previously mentioned GigaOM article quotes an intellectual property scholar who doubts that Craigslist can actually claim such a copyright, because by their nature ads are very difficult to copyright. Advertisers can and do place similar ad copy on several sites.
Whether that's accurate or not is really irrelevant though, because what matters is the reaction to the change. To its credit, Craigslist placed ads on its own service last month for new programming talent to begin enhancing the dowdy Craigslist experience. But even while it attempts to update the site, Craigslist continues to play the copyright card to keep possible change agents at bay.
It's a classic response for a disrupted organization: While some firms recognize the need to change, others are determined to protect the company's turf at all costs. It's what newspapers, movie studios, and record companies have been doing since the emergence of the Web, and unfortunately, Craigslist, when faced with similar kind of external pressure, has taken a comparable route.
You're right on the latter point slfisher: small ads have always been prone to that kind of nonsense. At the same time, Craigslist could police blatantly false and misleading ads a little more efficiently. Right now, it seems to rely mostly on crowd-sourced "flagging."
I can actually see obvious analytics-based ways to do the job better.
Craigslist has *always* been like this. It is as simple as it could possibly be, because it takes up less space, is less likely to break, and is less complicated to use. They're not about making money (though they do) but are about providing a service. If you don't like the service they provide, you're welcome to find another one -- but as with social media, what matters is the number of eyeballs that use it rather than the features.
As far as criticizing Craigslist because of Nigerian princes and prostitution and so on, that's basically blaming it for its success. That would happen with any other similar want-ad site with that sort of penetration. It's not anything predicated on something Craigslist is doing or not doing, and in fact they've done a lot to reduce the number of prostitution ads.
I agree with you Ron. They really should know better, and that kind of reaction is very dissapointing.
My feeling is once you post anything on the Internet, you have given up ownership, period. The only thing you can do is encourage people go back to the source and save the lawsuits for outright theft where no credit is given or visible.
I think in this instance, we have to rethink what we consider plagarizing. Mashing up content in clever ways should be welcome, not be used as an excuse to shut down the business as a threat. It's just so frustrating to me that Craigslist is reacting in this way instead of finding a way to work with these sites.
Yes, I saw that, Ron. It's a small sign of sanity. But this is really yet another sign that our conceptual and judicial thinking about copyright hasn't caught up with the realities of technology. Who would have dreamt that it would be possible to monetize a business by plagiarizing another Website's small ads?
GigaOM reported this morning that CL has removed the ownership restrictions it recently added to the Terms of Service (ToS), but this doesn't mean its war against sites like PadMapper is over. More likely, CL didn't like the reaction it got and backed off -- that, and according to to GigaOM it probably wasn't enforceable anyway.
Removing the ToS restriction is a good start, but if it continues to go after innovators like PadMapper, CL is stlll really missing the point and trying to paper over the collosal error it made when it changed the ToS in the first place.
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