fuck you, pay me

(Part 1 here)

The road to success in technology is a bumpy one. Some rise to stratospheric heights and are acquired for a billion dollars by Facebook or (this just in) by Microsoft. Some are called scumbags by John Gruber.

Readability is in the latter group.

All the “Read Later” apps work pretty much the same, but what made Readability controversial was their original business model. It was a simple idea: collect a subscription fee from users, starting at $5 (users could voluntarily increase that value). Readability would take a 30% share and the remaining 70% would be distributed to the content providers users pulled content from  (30/70 is Apple’s revenue share model, so it’s by definition as perfect and precious as the golden ratio). This payout from Readability would compensate content providers for the lost eyeballs and maybe generate more revenue than the banners ever would.

This looks fine in principle, until you start digging deeper. There were issues with this proposed model, which have been raised by several commentators around the web, in different levels of virulence:

  • Readability was collecting money on behalf of publishers, without their acknowledgement. Users payed their monthly subscriptions, thinking they were supporting the creation of their favorite content, but publishers whose content was being consumed via Readability could be completely unaware that someone, somewhere was paying for their content to someone else.
  • Publishers had to opt-in to receive payments from Readability. So publishers  in the previous example, totally unaware that their users were paying for their content to a third party, would never collect a check because they just didn’t know Readability had forcibly inserted itself into their value chain.
  • The money Readability collected from subscriptions had a theoretical grace period. It was unclear what Readability would do with the money nobody showed up to claim.

If the fact that the paragraphs above are written in the past tense isn’t enough of a hint, here’s what happened: Readability dropped the whole model, won’t collect subscriptions anymore, and will donate the unclaimed publisher payouts to charity. In the end, they couldn’t resist a wave of widespread criticism that befell them, and had to pull the plug on the whole thing. Unfortunately, the loudest criticism didn’t come from publishers, but from people close to Marco Arment and to the Apple Khmer Rouge (feel free to use that term liberally). While some of the criticism was valid and Readability seemed interested in addressing it in good faith, they had to pull back as the situation became potentially harmful to their reputation. Which is what happens when someone who owns a very large megaphone starts saying your company “is run by scumbags”.

What this loud group of critics conveniently forgets is that the ethics of the “Read Later” category is murky by definition. These are systems designed to copy and repurpose third party content in an unauthorized manner. They do so by using the capabilities provided by an open web environment, and while nothing should be done to prevent these systems from working the way they work today, a player who seeks to compensate publishers fairly nonetheless should be praised and not vilified.

TL;DR – at least Readability was trying  to get people paid.

Readability’s decision is understandable, but unfortunate. There might be escrow alternatives Readability could have explored, and those could have cleared the most concerning ethical issues, while still providing a revenue opportunity for content partners. But alas, the environment just got too toxic. Now the “Read Later” segment is again composed of Instapaper and its copycats. And some think that’s just the way it should be.

(The image that illustrate this post is taken from an article on the Nieman Journalism Lab with an interesting take on this discussion from a content provider’s perspective)