I like Readability very much. Let's get that straight from the start. Yet many see it as every bit as much a threat to intellectual property as Pinterest.
If Pinterest seems implicitly designed to provide a platform for the distribution of other people's content, that's exactly and explicitly Readability's mission. Or, as Readability itself puts it: "Our goal is simple: to deliver a great reading experience on every platform and provide an avenue for connecting readers and publishers on the Web."
In short, Readability is a free reading platform that allows users to select -- or "scrape" -- content from other Websites and have it delivered to the device of their choice (iPhone, iPad, Android, Kindle, etc.) as clean, smooth-reading text, in a customizable view. It makes reading articles, especially longer texts, a joy.
But let's take a look at what this actually involves. As an example, I'll take an article I saved to my Readability reading list today, a short feature on New York City barbecue by Jim Shahin, posted on Esquire.com. Here's my experience when I surf to the original page at the Esquire Website: First, I hit an interstitial ad page, and I click on "skip" so fast I can't remember anything else about it.
Looking at the original article, I find a banner ad for Don Julio tequila. At the top of the right vertical, I see another ad for the same product. Further down the righthand column, I come across sponsored links for Levi's clothing and for insurance and refinancing services. At the bottom of the lefthand column, there are more sponsored links, and all over the page are links to other Esquire pages and to external blogs, all of which doubtless carry their own ads and sponsored messages.
My saved Readability version of the same article? No ads whatsoever. Links back to the original page, and links to email the author or follow him on Twitter. Otherwise, just clean, spacious, uncluttered text. A joy.
A joy for me, anyway. Less so for Don Julio and Levi's, not to mention Esquire. Rupert Murdoch and other mainstream media barons have long been complaining about aggregators poaching their content and using it to draw traffic to -- and monetize -- their own Websites.
The Readability model raises the stakes, because it lets users aggregate their own content, not just by following RSS feeds, but at a micro level. In effect, I can compile my own Web magazine every day with a few easy clicks and send it, completely ad-free, to my chosen platform.
But is Readability monetizing the content at all? Right now, no, and it's an open question whether a way will be found to do so. Interestingly, a premium level of membership, which asked readers to pay $5 or more per month, was discontinued in June.
According to Readability, 70 percent of the revenue from premium memberships was to be distributed to the authors and publishers whose content readers were scraping. Unfortunately, more than 90 percent of the money collected went unclaimed, primarily because Web domains -- through ignorance or indifference -- failed to register for the plan.
This set off a storm of angry commentary on the Readability blog, where content producers contested its right to force them to opt in to claim revenues for appropriation of their work. Readability, of course, thought it was doing the decent thing, namely "figuring out alternatives to broken business models that no longer adequately support most writers and publishers."
We'd all like to see that happen (and let's not forget musicians, artists, photographers, and filmmakers, too). The problem is that there continues to be a major disconnect in the way Web developers and content producers think about copyright.
In a recent article, the novelist Tim Parks argued that copyright, although a difficult and slippery concept, is necessary to the continued production of at least some kinds of art.
I'm sure publishers like Esquire would argue that it's central to monetizing their Webpages.
I'd argue that the idea of intellectual property in general, including patents, is a driving force for most -- if not all -- creativity. Nevertheless, Readability is right: Current business models based on traditional notions of content ownership are broken.
As enterprise managers, social media users, or just as individuals, we need to think copyright through again, from the bottom up.
— Kim Davis , Community Editor, Internet Evolution