On the blog Expletive Inserted, Greg Cox has a look at the failure of Readability’s subscribers-pay-for-content plan that I mentioned Readability has decided to close down. Distilling various voices from the blogosphere who have posted their own comments about the issue, Cox boils the lessons that can be learned down to two principles.

The first is that the money doesn’t matter so much as the sense of entitlement. Readability is far from the only reformatter to charge its users, after all. The problem wasn’t so much that as it was that Readability was claiming to represent authors and publishers without their consent.

The second is that product developers will be held accountable for their actions rather than their intentions. Readability has $150,000 that it had promised its subscribers would go to the authors and publishers of the works they read, but given that the majority of publishers never bothered to apply, most of it won’t actually get there—and what gives Readability the right to decide unilaterally the fate of that money subscribers had paid toward compensating the publications whose ads they skipped?

The lesson is that trying something novel, even with good intentions, does not give you a free pass. As a product developer you will be held accountable for the outcomes related to your product. If you fail, you will have people to answer to and “but, I was trying something good and cool” will probably not be sufficient to get you out of hot water.

Cox continues to hammer on the sense of entitlement Readability shows by casting this as “the failure of an experiment, instead of apologizing for getting things wrong”. He feels it shows a lack of accountability, and the belief that startups can take people’s money without having to deliver on what they promise, and suggests that this shows Readability hasn’t really learned its lesson.

The whole thing is really a bit of a tricky issue, because any payment-for-ad-skipping thing really should be set up by the actual owners of the content. And, in some cases, it is; you can choose to subscribe to some publications like Ars Technica in return for not viewing ads and getting other perks. But for something where you pay one fee across every site you read, you’re going to need to have cooperation beforehand of those sites. You can’t just declare you’re going to do it and hope they sign up to get their money.

Getting cooperation of all the sites would be hard, of course, which is why ideally you’d need the cooperation of some kind of agency set up for the purpose. Record labels have licensing companies like ASCAP and BMI, which is where the payout goes for any compulsorily-licensed song content and is then distributed where it belongs. But what do on-line magazines and papers have?

Perhaps the next step forward is for online media to come together and set up some kind of a licensing firm themselves, where they can opt in for payment (with terms more favorable than Readability’s “you indemnify us for our copyright violations before we pay you” contract). Then if someone like Readability wants to collect fees, those fees can go to that agency and it can decide how they’re apportioned. At least that way it would have some kind of imprimatur of legitimacy, by being set up by the publications it’s actually supposed to benefit.

Until and unless that happens, the question of how publications get paid when readers are increasingly willing to skip ads is going to continue to be a problem. (Of course, even then it still doesn’t address the issue of just how few people were even willing to pay Readability for ad-skipping and publication benefitting. But that’s a whole other kettle of fish.)


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