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The Readlists debate: ebook repackaging splits industry

Is Arc90's new service the future of online reading or a step too far?

Arc90 has divided the industry with its latest 'lab experiment', Readlists. The company is no stranger to controversy and new thinking, having attempted to distribute funds to publishers whose work was time-shifted in its Readability 'read it later' app – a model .net recently reported had ceased to be. But Readlists is far more contentious. Not only does the site enable user-defined sets of articles to be created and sent together on a web page, but also for these articles to be compiled into an ebook that can be loaded on to a tablet or smartphone.

As writer and developer Kyle Baxter recently said on his blog, the idea of grouping articles into subjects could be considered useful, but "Readlists is effectively a distribution system for other people's content, taken without their permission and distributed in a new medium. It allows people's articles to spread wholly separate from the medium originally intended."

Crossing a line

Fans of Readlists consider it a natural evolution to scraping services that time-shift content for you to read later, devoid of a site's design and, crucially, advertising, but Instapaper creator Marco Arment disagrees. He said his 'read it later' service Instapaper is justified through fair-use doctrine (in a similar way to how television can be legally time-shifted through using a PVR or VCR), but Readlists takes things too far: "That service's mass redistribution of copyrighted content through public ebook-format downloads is definitely not fair use. Readlists crosses a significant line that Instapaper will not."

Arment told us that publishers and the press might not recognise this fairly subtle difference, take offence at what Readlists does, and "lump all of our other services into this perception", despite Instapaper's more respectful stance regarding copyright and publishers. But what of applications and clients such as Tweetbot that enable you to circumvent a website entirely and send an article to Instapaper (and similar services) directly from a link? "This is, admittedly, an uncomfortable point," said Arment, although he added pages saved through API methods, for which he doesn't know whether a corresponding pageview has occurred, represent a "very small portion" of all saved pages on Instapaper.

He also claimed publishers he's spoken to aren't too fussed about this aspect of his service, because they consider such saves occasional and secondary, rather than the primary means of time-shifting, unlike the Readlists ebook-oriented model, which has "unauthorised mass copyright infringement [that] significantly detracts from the writer-friendly image they're trying to project".

The future of online writing

Writer Ben Brooks sides with Arment on this issue, and added that there's also a broadcasting aspect to Arc90's service that irks: "Where Instapaper is a personal service that someone uses to time/design-shift their reading, Readlists is a public service that does the same thing. In that sense, Readlists is not only repackaging my content, but also publicly redistributing my content. In my mind, this very much crosses a line that as a content creator I am very upset about." He also noted that whereas Instapaper might have only a small minority of users circumventing visiting sites prior to time-shifting, that's not the case for Readlists: "Anyone with good, or great, designs are punished unfairly by this service pulling their readers away from viewing their site and thus, likely, taking money away from the content creator."

Unsurprisingly, Arc90 CEO Richard Ziade has a very different point of view, and told .net content creators should examine the bigger picture: "The term 'publishing' is pretty much abused at this point. When I save a photo to a Dropbox folder and publicly share it, is it 'publishing'? When Readability – or Instapaper – or Pocket – hosts a cleaned copy of an article that I visit directly, is it 'publishing' it? Users are doing all kinds of crazy things to content that you could frame as 'republishing without consent'. It's happening everywhere and if anything, it's accelerating."

Ziade thinks more important questions need answering, largely regarding how content creators can leverage the goodwill from users who love these kinds of services, dig in and find more value in new experiences. "We think there are opportunities ahead if people are willing to explore," he said, suggesting there's a real leap in embracing what previously passive consumers have evolved into: "They're now quite active because tools such as Readability, Readlists and others empower them to not just consume. This is the really big change. The days of handing over static, bundled content that is only for passive consumption are gone." And while Ziade admitted Readlists in and of itself isn't yet hugely beneficial to writers ("Today, they're akin to a video going viral."), he posited future versions of the service could include sponsorship, promotion and payment options.

Remix and rethink

Happy Cog founder Jeffrey Zeldman is on the advisory board of Readability, but, importantly, he's also a published author whose words are widely spread around the web, often without his consent. He told us: "'Consent' is a strange word in today's web. You can not only scrape, store and share, but also remix, add a vintage filter, clip, edit, overdub. This activity around content is incredibly empowering."

As a publisher, Zeldman said he supports experiments like Readlists, in part because we "won't discover the future of reading, sharing, and the web if we cling desperately to obsolete 20th-century ideas about the audience as passive recipients of creative largesse, and corporations and their attorneys as the beneficent providers of that largesse". He likened the 'active' readers Ziade referred to as modern-day punks, renewing interest in crafting rather than merely consuming like the previous generation.

We also wondered if publishers are themselves at fault for serving up poor experiences, cramming content into diminishing spaces, surrounded by an increasing number of ads. Zeldman himself recently said that "either designers will design for their end-users, or third-party apps will remove designers from the transaction". According to Arment, "'Publishers made us do this' is not really a valid argument. Before Instapaper, people who couldn't comfortably read a site's text would adjust the font size, print it out, or copy it into a word processor to read it – all of which are clear cases of personal fair use." He said while Instapaper automates that personal time-shifting process, Readlists redistributes bundles of other people's content publicly without their permission.

Zeldman, though, appeared adamant Readlists is more a stepping stone than a jagged rock lobbed at publishing's greenhouse: "It's not just about cleaning up crap, but also empowering users to do things with content. 'Curation' is too big and too imprecise a word for a lot of this activity, but something is definitely happening with content and the ways we consume, create, and share it. Readlists is simply a next step – a next experiment – in this evolution of how readers interact with the web content they love."

However, he nonetheless added that there remains a warning for designers: poor design is still being taught and practised; and designers and studios who "persevere in putting the user last" will go out of business "unless they realise what is happening, adapt, and change". Savvy designers, he said, will see Readlists and similar services as an opportunity: "They should enable designers to rethink who they serve, how they serve them, and the very notion of content. Like apps, it's a chance for designers to reinvent their careers and to create exciting new products that never existed before. Or they can keep doing what they've been doing and fall by the wayside."

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