RSS does not mean Reuse Share Sell: taking the Pulse of noncommercial

feed-icon-96x96The Pulse RSS reader caused quite a stir when Steve Jobs demonstrated it during his recent WWDC keynote speech. He talked briefly about Pulse’s merits and as used it as an example of the sorts of applications which are available for the iPad in the iTunes App Store. He probably didn’t count on the New York Times’ lawyers taking issue with the Times’ feed being one of the feeds Pulse ships with by default, particularly considering that Pulse is a paid application. NYT’s lawyers wrote to Apple requesting that Pulse be pulled from the App Store alleging as follows:

The Pulse News Reader app, makes commercial use of the NYTimes.com and Boston.com RSS feeds, in violation of their Terms of Use*. Thus, the use of our content is unlicensed. The app also frames the NYTimes.com and Boston.com websites in violation of their respective Terms of Use.

I note that the app is delivered with the NYTimes.com RSS feed preloaded, which is prominently featured in the screen shots used to sell the app on iTunes.

The full email was republished on Kara Swisher’s blog. The NYT’s terms of service provide as follows:

2. NYTIMES.COM CONTENT

2.1 The contents of the NYTimes.com sites are intended for your personal, noncommercial use. All materials published on NYTimes.com (including, but not limited to news articles, photographs, images, illustrations, audio clips and video clips, also known as the “Content”) are protected by copyright, and owned or controlled by The New York Times Company, NYTimes.com, or the party credited as the provider of the Content. You shall abide by all additional copyright notices, information, or restrictions contained in any Content accessed through the Service.

2.2 The Service and its Contents are protected by copyright pursuant to U.S. and international copyright laws. You may not modify, publish, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, reproduce (except as provided in Section 2.3 of these Terms of Service), create new works from, distribute, perform, display, or in any way exploit, any of the Content or the Service (including software) in whole or in part.

2.3 You may download or copy the Content and other downloadable items displayed on the Service for personal use only, provided that you maintain all copyright and other notices contained therein. Copying or storing of any Content for other than personal use is expressly prohibited without prior written permission from The New York Times Rights and Permissions Department, or the copyright holder identified in the copyright notice contained in the Content.

The terms of service clearly restrict use of NYT content to “personal, noncommercial” use and, as the extract from NYT’s lawyer above indicates, NYT was of the view that including the NYT’s feed in the Pulse application was a commercial use of that content, apparently because the NYT believes its content was used to sell Pulse. NYT also objected to Pulse “framing” NYT and Boston Globe content in the application, presumably a reference to how these websites can be displayed in Pulse like a Web browser. In fact, Pulse incorporates a Web browser to display actual Web pages rather than just the published RSS or Atom feeds.

I have been listening to the debate on a recent episode of This Week in Law about the merits of NYT’s lawyer’s contention that Pulse infringed NYT’s terms of service and made use of NYT’s and its affiliate’s content for uses that were not personal and noncommercial. Evan Brown expressed a view early on in the podcast that seemed to mirror the view held by NYT’s lawyer; namely that the terms of service prohibit commercial use of NYT’s content and Pulse’s use of the content was commercial, therefore a violation of the content license the NYT grants to its readers. This, in turn, justified NYT’s call for the application to be pulled. I initially agreed with his view and disagreed with TWIL host Denise Howell‘s arguments that aggregators like Pulse should be regarded as utilities and effectively exempt from any argument that they infringe copyright simply because they display content feeds that the content owner publishes (I believe that summarizes her argument fairly).

I do see Denise’s point and agree that regarding a paid RSS reader as infringing copyright because it displays a feed which may have a noncommercial restriction is as absurd as claiming Google; Mozilla; Apple, Opera or any Web browser developer is liable for copyright infringement because their browsers display content with similar restrictions. On the other hand, I don’t believe that this is what the real issue is. The real issue in this case is whether a paid RSS reader like Pulse is making commercial use of content either by displaying it at all or if it displays the restricted content in its marketing material? The term “noncommercial” has proven to be a particularly tough one to pin down, so much so that Creative Commons commissioned a study on what people generally understand by this term.

On the one hand, Pulse is a paid application and a user’s purchasing decision may be influenced by the appearance of the NYT’s content in the application when it is demonstrated. What if the NYT’s content was not included in the application’s demonstrations? What if a user purchased the application and subsequently added the NYT’s feed to Pulse and consumed that content on a personal and noncommercial basis? Would this use still be tainted by the price charged to use Pulse? NYT’s lawyers would seem to argue this is the case but this argument is increasingly absurd when you consider that the argument necessarily means that Google, Mozilla, Apple and Co. must similarly be on the hook for copyright infringement if people view the NYT website in their browsers.

The central question should be whether the use of the content is permitted by the relevant content provider’s terms of service or content license and not whether the technology used to access that content permits that access, as I understand Howell’s argument to suggest, in part. Assuming I understood this to be one of Howell’s points correctly, the logical implication of her further argument is that it should be legal to pirate and share pirated content because the means exist to make this possible. Rather, the argument should focus on the relevant content license which may have been applied to the content (or, in the absence of a license, the restrictions of copyright law itself).

I see selling content as a clear case of commercial use. On the other hand, enabling a person to view content in a freely available Web browser shouldn’t be regarded as commercial use of the content. The fact that Pulse is a paid application shouldn’t, in itself, make displaying the NYT’s content (either the website itself or its published feeds) commercial but perhaps selling the application with an implication of NYT’s endorsement or, worse, that NYT content is part of the deal could be commercial use of NYT’s content. The answer to this question isn’t clear but the closer Pulse’s developer gets to actually making profit from NYT’s content directly, the clearer it is that his use of NYT’s content is commercial. The developer is probably best served removing NYT content from the application as it ships and to refrain from referring to it or displaying it in the application in his marketing material.

What this furore highlights, though, is that some publishers publish their content under restrictive content licenses which are typically detailed in their terms and conditions. I have advised a couple clients who has assumed that if content is published through a feed they should be free to use that content however they please but this is simply not the case. Irrespective of the technology used to publish the content, content licenses still apply to that content and use of the content should be moderated accordingly.