In the first instance in which the copyright dispute between publishers and Instapaper is visible to users, the read-it-later app has blocked tech blog 9to5Mac from its service because Instapaper doesn't want to "save pages from publishers who object to the service," founder Marco Arment told Buzzfeed's Matt Buchanan. Now when Instapaper users click their "read it later" bookmarks on a 9to5Mac story, the alert above pops up. From the sounds of it, 9to5Mac said some mean things about the essence of Instapaper, which ticked Arment off enough for him to expel the tech blog. "I interpreted their 'Instascraper' references [e.g. on the update to this post] and constant derision as an objection to what Instapaper does," he tweeted at Buchanan, confirming that he no longer wants his app to work with the website. Though this looks like a bit of a personal spat between the two, it's also the realization of the copyright concerns expressed with Instapaper, and services like it, before.
As much as Instapaper improves the reader experience, the concept has been compared to stealing. The app takes an Internet article and puts it in a stripped down, nice to read format, while removing the original ads and design of the original website. Then, users can read it later on the Instapaper site or via the app. In other words: "Instapaper’s business model is stealing content created by others, stripping it of the ads that pay the creators, and running their own advertising on it?" wrote Outside the Beltway's James Joyner back in October of 2010. The Awl's Choir Sicha, who admits to loving using apps like Instapaper, also called it copyright infringement at best. As he points out, none of the proceeds from the $4.99 app go to reimburse these sites for their lost ad revenue. Ergo: It's kind of like stealing.
To get around these legal complications, Instapaper provides an opt-out list, of which 9to5Mac is now a member. "Most publishers value the increased engagement, retention, and social interaction that Instapaper encourages among their readership. But any publisher can choose to opt out of Instapaper text-parsing compatibility," explains the site. Though, it doesn't really make sense for a publisher to do this because it then looks like a scrooge who doesn't care about what its readers want. "That'd be dumb! Why not make readers happy? Why not sacrifice some of the money that is coming to writers so readers can be happy? I guess?" wrote Sicha, admitting it was a hard position for publications. As of June of last year, when he publsihed his post, no major publishers had opted out. And so, it seemed, Instapaper had won.
But maybe not. With this 9to5Mac ban, perhaps we're seeing the first tiff in a longer battle over the legality and morality of read it later apps. And things aren't shaping out exactly as one might have expected. Contrary to this original warning (pictured at right), 9to5Mac didn't request that status. Rather, we're seeing the tyranny of Instapaper, which has gotten confident enough in its popularity to push out websites who happen to disagree with its position on copyright. Sicha, Joyner, and any other dissidents might want to watch their mouths.
Update September 11, 8:30 a.m.: False alarm on the war: Instapaper has apologized, putting 9to5Mac back on the service.