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ZitelogoRemember when the New York Times got upset about RSS reader Pulse making use of its feed? And Gizmodo wondered whether Flipboard was legal for the use it made of publishers’ content? The controversy is popping up again with iPad news app Zite.

Zite is a remarkable iPad application and I’ve been meaning to review it for a while now. Essentially, it’s a sort of “Pandora for news”—it looks at your social network feeds and, rather than aggregating news posts from those feeds like Flipboard, tries to guess what sorts of news you’d be interested in, and goes looking for it to show it to you.

As with Pandora, you can thumb up or down individual articles to get a more refined feed. It’s not perfect—for some reason, one of the articles it snagged on my first read-through was a two-year-old blog post about how the Kindle was just going to be a flash in the pan—but it has found me a number of stories lately that I’ve missed on my regular RSS feed trawls, so I think I’ll be using it a lot more often.

The way Zite works by default is that it reformats the content from articles, much like apps such as Readability, Instapaper, or Safari Reader, to make them more readable on the screen. A number of publishers don’t like this, however, since it can mess with the formatting of complex articles and, more importantly, often disposes of their advertising.

As a result, lawyers representing publications including Time, The Washington Post, McClatchy, E.W. Scripps, Getty Images, National Geographic, Gannett, Dow Jones, Advanced Publications and the Associated Press sent Zite an angry cease-and-desist letter complaining that Zite was unlawfully misappropriating and republishing their content.

Zite CEO Ali Davar responded on Zite’s blog, explaining that for outlets that request it or that use the “noarchive” meta tag,, Zite offers a “web view”, which displays the article in an in-app web browser view mirroring their appearance on the web.

We don’t look at this as an adversarial situation. If the formal cease and desist we received from the big publishing companies yesterday was a one line email from the world’s smallest blogger, we would treat it exactly the same: we would switch the content from reading mode to web view mode. That’s it. This is not our legal position, it’s just our policy. Zite is eager to work with publishers in a way that benefits everyone – most importantly end users.

It remains to be seen whether this will satisfy those publishers. After all, Zite is still profiting from using their sites’ content—but on the other hand, it’s now displaying it exactly the same as they do on their websites. It’s the same old question of who profits more: the aggregator or the aggregatee.

As Mathew Ingram points out on GigaOM, magazine publishers really should be paying attention to the innovative way in which apps such as Pulse, Flipboard, and Zite are displaying content in ways that make it more convenient for people to read.

The bigger issue here isn’t whether such apps and services are breaking the letter of the copyright law by reformatting content — it’s whether any media outlets are learning anything from what apps like Zite and Flipboard are doing, apart from how to file legal threats. Amanda Natividad notes at PaidContent that as a content producer, she doesn’t like the implications of what Zite and others are doing, but as a reader she enjoys it because it is so much nicer to look at.

Zite is a great new way to discover news of interest to me. My only complaint would be it doesn’t really have enough categories to be finely-grained in my interests that it represents (why is there a “Kindle” category but not a general e-reader one?), but it finds enough interesting stuff for me that it’s not really a problem.

Hopefully publishers will be satisfied with Zite’s willingness to change the way content is displayed in response to their requests. Zite is quite a useful app, and I’d like to see it stay around.

 
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