The ethics and lessons of Readability
June 16th, 2012 by ravi

Good chunks of the web today are an unreadable mess. A fair bit of blame for that lies with poor design (print publishing was a well honed craft in lieu of which today we have been given Comic Sans and CSS gimmicks). The other major culprit of course is advertising. Smearing a web page with garish and intrusive graphics pitching products, happens to be the only way to make money writing for an audience brought up on the “free as in beer” model bequeathed by the dot-com bubble. And cash is much needed. While blog posts like this one can be churned out by the dozen and transmitted worldwide at little expense, real reportage and analysis requires feet on the ground, fact-checking, and these days, a robust legal department.

To repeat, two issues lie at the heart of the problem: publishers of content need to make money, and readers need to be able to read the content without losing their sanity.

The arrival of a type of service (sometimes benignly labelled “read later”) solved one aspect of the problem, the messiness, at the cost of significant aggravation of the other (lack of publisher/author reward). Ignoring the built-in capability in the Safari browser (called Safari Reader), three vendors implement such “read later” services today: Instapaper, Read It Later, now Pocket, and Readability. All three of them use algorithms to strip away ads and other adornments in a web page and extract the “real” content which can be viewed immediately by the user or saved away to the respective site for later viewing. Of the three, one, Readability, has been singled out for severe criticism in the blogosphere (with one popular blogger referring to them as “scumbags”).

Some preparatory points:

Reading Later

I am very sceptical of the euphemistic suggestion that the primary purpose of these sites is to enable postponement of reading. That can be easily accomplished through the traditional bookmarking capabilities of browsers and sites like Delicious. While the Read Later services make the job easier, especially with the introduction of multi-device apps, such ease of use features are not beyond bookmark syncing and storage services.

The real value of Instapaper and Readability is the cruft removal (from here on, I shall drop reference to Pocket, a service that I have not as intimate knowledge of as the other two, but for the intents of this post can be taken to be similar to Instapaper). If you disagree on that count, I must warn that our disagreement is bound to grow in what follows.

Making Money

Both Instapaper and Readability make money (“comfortably into six figures”, in the case of Marco Arment, owner of Instapaper).

Instapaper makes money in a few ways: by, ironically enough, placing ads on their site when you revisit to read the saved content. By selling apps for the iOS and Android platforms. And through a subscription service that provides additional features.

Readability started out by charging users a fee to use the service, the bulk of which (70%) they promised to pay out to the authors of the content (and this promise, surprisingly, is the locus of the controversy). Today, Readability is free to users and they seem to derive revenue from those users who continue to volunteer payment or perhaps by acting as a backend service to other sites and applications.

Where Content is Read

When a user saves some web page to either service, it is almost certainly the case that they will get back to it and read it at the service’s site, not the original location. This I assert on the basis of not only my own earlier assertion that the value of the services lie in their uncluttering function, but also because saved content is in fact rendered in-app, when selected by the user in the iOS (and I assume Android) apps. This is a significant lemma for what is to follow, and worth restating: once a web page is saved away to either Instapaper or Readability, the user is most likely to read it using the interface offered by the service (either on the web or in an app) and not at the original site (where the publisher might hope to gain a few advertising pennies from the visit).

And with that preparatory work in hand:

The Criticism of Readability

I recommend reading (and following the links within) the following pieces which capture the bulk of the criticism levelled, exclusively, at Readability:

Gruber’s anger is three pronged:

  1. Readability exhibits misplaced entitlement over the work of others by collecting money on their behalf.
  2. They keep money that has not been claimed by such publishers.
  3. And on top of that, they “steal” views by posting links to their version of a page rather than the original, when a user shares a link (on Twitter, Facebook, etc).

Greg Cox offers some insight into the response elicited by Readability’s alleged “entitlement” attitude:

On the face of it Readbility, which tried to compensate publishers, should be more popular with authors than competitors who make no attempt to do so. Right?

Wrong. It turns out that many authors care less about the money, and more about the fact that Readability is representing them without their consent. As a publisher, I understand this reaction and it isn’t entirely rational. Even if the financial outcomes were equivalent for Readability and Instapaper, and even if the user experiences they offered were identical, I would find it easier to accept Instapaper deriving direct benefit from someone buying their app than to accept Readability deriving benefit from collecting revenue on my behalf.

The Readability model just felt dishonest and entitled.

How Well Does the Criticism Hold?

We can safely dismiss Gruber’s #2 — that Readability keeps the money — and the point made in the post by Ben Brooks that Gruber links to:

[W]hat happens to all the money that would, should, have gone to a publisher that did not opt-in, or actively chose to not participate?

The obvious answer is that Readability keeps that money and its just a bonus to them for pursuing this business model. If my assumption that Readability pockets unclaimed money after 12 months, I think as both a publisher and formerly a paying member, we should be upset.

(emphasis added)

It turns out that Brooks’s assumption is wrong (by most acceptable definitions of the word “keep”) and we can forego displeasure on that count. Readability is not keeping the money. The money is held in a separate escrow account and will be given away.

Criticism #3 from Gruber, the matter of shared links, is at best a tempest in a teacup. Honesty demands that we recognise that all these services steal productive page views away from the original publisher. That’s the very point of them, to reduce time spent by the user on the original site by providing the same content in a different format and location. In comparison to the ethical question raised by this primary function, the etiquette concerns of linking back to the original is, arguably, a trivial matter.

What remains is the “entitlement” issue, the stuff that draws the ire of authors and publishers, per Greg Cox.

Let us rehash a bit. Instapaper makes money by selling advertising, subscriptions, and apps that rely entirely on the content of authors and publishers. Just the same as Readability does. In doing so, and by their very design, they undoubtedly eat into the advertising revenue that these pages generate for the authors. Every person who uses these services (and that includes me) has to figure out the ethics of doing so (I use both: Readability for the elegant interface, Instapaper for the connection to Evernote. I am doubly guilty). On this crucial question, there is no difference whatsoever between the two products. While everyone from Isaac Newton to Lawrence Lessig, through Picasso, will assure you that there is no such thing as original content and that each piece of work depends on and borrows from others, there is reason for pause here, to consider a situation where these add-on services might well be earning an order of magnitude more than many of the authors whose works they reuse.

It is this concern for the author that Readability claims to accommodate with the attempt to share 70% of subscriber fees with them. Whether this is genuine or a ploy to earn the 30% that goes towards paying Readability’s own bills is a matter of psychoanalysis that I will leave to the reader. But it does constitute a legitimate approach to solve the problem of unremunerated work. However, contrary to what Readability write in their blog post, the $150,000 they have managed to earn for authors in all this time is a trifling amount and is evidence of the failure of this approach. They tried an experiment and it failed for more reasons than they admit.

If, as Cox suggests, authors are unhappy with the experiment, then as he gladly and quite correctly accepts, this reaction is not entirely rational. In fact, I contend that it is entirely irrational. It is a strange kind of indignation that balks not at the sense of entitlement implied in use without permission of one’s work to derive profit, but rather takes umbrage when such gains are shared. I will willingly wager with any takers that had the Readability experiment been successful (in the sense of raising a 100 times the $150,000 they raised through subscriber fees), most authors would have gladly signed up for their 70% share. And if such a successful experiment helped us break free of the insidious advertising driven model we have today, by which we have become unwilling to charge or pay for the actual things we enjoy, then all the better.

Driven by his visceral distaste of the idea of someone charging money for his content, Cox believes Readability has missed the real lesson. But to me, this issue of decorum and entitlement that vexes Cox is no different, logically and semantically, from the debate over the so-called “death tax”, a tax whose basis is made apparent and more justifiable when rephrased and collected as an inheritance income tax. I believe the Readability model can be “framed” similarly in a more agreeable way that does not imply presumptive representation of others.

However, no amount of reframing will diminish the fact that Readability’s experiment failed not because authors just failed to collect their share, but because there wasn’t money worth collecting. The numbers by Readability’s admission are stark: “thousands” subscribed at $5/month to create a grand total of about $150,000. To be channelled to authors spread over “millions of domains”. Given this ratio, is it any surprise that only 2000 showed up to collect? This deserves thought.

One other thing: some have made much of the fact that authors have to go to the trouble of registering with Readability, if they wish to see any of the 70% share that might have accrued from their readership. This line of criticism I find unconvincing. Apart from the logistical near impossibility of tracking down each author, there is the matter that startups (unlike Apple) are not suffered gladly by publishing houses when they (the startups) come knocking with proposals to borrow content to republish with a 30% cut.

10 Responses  
  • kelley writes:

    I suspect that these sites start out with a good idea and geek passion. then someone tells them: you don’t have to make money so much as you have to get buzz/press and, if possible, lots of numbers. the money comes when buys you out. I don’t have enough digits to count the number of people I know for whom this is the case. Toward the end of the life of the small company we started, we lost some clients due to exactly this. “Oops. Sorry, that marketing campaign we wanted you to write a proposal/bid on? Can’t do it. We’re being bought by Oracle!” I’m reminded of the way writers use blogs, not so they can spend their life blogging, but so they can be discovered by publishers. All of which is to say, I question the sincerity of the payment model.

    Also, I wonder how different something like this is from the old clipping services. In this case, the clips are generated by the user of the account at readability. In the old days, the cliping service clipped the articles of interest (say: all recent articles on the topic of Horse Racing in Maryland) to the particular population. They’d get a mailing and, later, a fax with all the clips. There were also indexing services that simply indexed items for ease of look up, charging a fee for the convenience. Of course, the “difference” is the copyright issues.

    • ravi writes:

      Kelley, good points. I agree on the “M&A exit strategy” — hey it worked for, Instagram, everyone else, why not me? :-) Some of it, I suspect, isn’t even thought out so explicitly. IMHO, in the startup community there is a cultivated attitude that it is worth it to throw yourself at a good idea irrespective of profitability, etc, and it will work itself out.

      I had no idea about this clipping service. They actually cut stuff out of newspapers? So who pays for the newspapers?

  • kelley writes:

    wrong email!

  • kelley writes:

    Yeah, that’s what I’ve seen too. It’s that geek passion thing. All big on what they think is a great idea…

    The clipping service provided an actual clipping of the entire article. when I first started doing newsletter/desktop publishing years ago, people thought they could make a living providing a kind of web based clipping service. that was before search engines. :)

    when I consulted wiki to sanity check my memory, I thought it was funny that the first clipping service was popular amongst artists who ego surfed what had been written about them. ha!

  • Ryan Riddle writes:

    Great in-depth look. Gruber does hit on the point that it’s not so much money, but more about Readability and other scrapper apps potentially being seen as representing those authors. At ZURB, we noticed that Readability had basically scrapped a lot of our branding on one of our blog posts, which led us to write an article on this very topic of brand recognition, copyright and legalities by chatting with Rich at Readability directly and also by talking with Rand Fishkin at SEOmoz.

    It’ll be interesting how Readability and Instapaper deal with writer’s rights, including pay, as the publishing world continues to change.

    • ravi writes:


      thank you for your comment. Gruber’s complaint about misrepresentation seems to be not about authorship so much as charging for the content i.e., he is upset not that these sites are republishing the content, but upset that Readability, in his view, attempts to collect money on behalf of that author. As I wrote, I think this is a tempest in a teacup. If Readability instead said “we are collecting 100% of the money for the cleanup service we provide, but hey, if any author is interested s/he can contact us for a content fee” then that semantic problem disappears, IMHO. The real weighty issue, to me, really is the appropriation of the content. Again, as I argue, very few authors will object to the sort of misrepresentation that worries Gruber *if* Readability had successfully collected *significant* sums of money e.g: if you paid Readability $50 to read this blog post of mine (one can dream :-)), but you did so at Readability, and Readability gave me $35, I wouldn’t give much notice to where you read it or what Readability’s words sound like. Would you disagree?

      The question you raise in the last sentence of your comment is the interesting one. I would venture that it is a bigger problem of anyone raising money for content, which today seems nearly impossible.

  • Steven writes:

    Putting aside the controversy about the above mentioned reasons, and putting aside that Marco is okay with competition, the thing I couldn’t stand about Readability was the fact that they ended up competing with Marco after everything even if he’s okay with it.

  • Sai To writes:

    Interesting points Ravi, but I would actually argue that the primary point of these apps is to allow for offline reading. I think it’s safe to say that as the number of people with Ipads have grown, the majority are purchasers of the cheapest $499 Wifi only model. As a New Yorker, it’s the only way one can read the news while underground in the subway. It’s providing a necessary service that otherwise would have been left unaddressed by publishers themselves. Like YouTube or Napster, the initial impression is that all they do is steal content, but ultimately overall consumption of content goes up, and I do think the creators are deserving of some of the profits that come from it.

    • ravi writes:

      Hello Sai,

      I do not dispute the usage or value of offline reading, but only note that that can be achieved in other ways (and in fact has been in the past, where entire web pages were saved using one mechanism or the other). The real question, I think you will agree, is how we make writing/publishing on the Internet profitable, especially without relying on advertising. Readability’s attempt was, in my opinion, a genuine approach to solve the problem, albeit, IMO, one preordained to fail.

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