Apple, New York Times and the case of the yo-yoing Pulse app

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A popular iPad application called Pulse News Reader, developed by two students at the Stanford Institute of Design, has been at the centre of a media storm this week.

Pulse works like a fancy RSS reader, by collecting and presents articles from websites of news organisations. The app has had much fanfare since its release: it is well-rated in the App Store and Apple CEO Steve Jobs sung his praises at WWDC on Monday.

But when The New York Times wrote a gushing story about Pulse, the report seems to have alerted the publication's legal department, who forced Apple to pull the app.

The written notice from the New York Times Company declares that “The New York Times Company believes your application named ‘Pulse News Reader’ infringes The New York Times Company’s rights.”

New York Times tech writer Brad Stone is covering the ongoing spat, in a self-referential loop that would confuse the greatest post-modernists of our times.

So what was Pulse's crime? According to the lawyer's letter, the Pulse app took pages from NYTimes.com and Boston.com, which is also owned by the Times Company, and put them in a frame within the app, with other content around the edges. Pulst also made commercial use of the NYT brand and content by featuring it prominently in advertising material.

Kara Swisher at All Things Digital reported that the app had only been available at the Apple app store for four week, before Apple pulled the plug. The creators, Stanford students Akshay Kothari and Ankit Gupta, created the app for class, which requires students to develop and put out a product.

"The app was quickly approved after about four weeks of development. Since then, it has taken off strongly, downloaded 35,000 times at a $4 price tag, even rising to No. 1 in paid apps several times, as noted prominently in the lead of the Times story."

To make matters more confusing, the Pulse app has since been reinstated today, after being tweaked by the makers to remove any trace of the New York Times.

Tech Radar's Craig Grannell slammed NYT's legal department "RSS reader developers gain permission/agreements with content providers, because doing so would take years, and there's an assumption that feeds are provided freely, so you can access content."

Grannell advises the NYtimes.com: "Remove all your feeds, which deals with the problem nicely, since no evil RSS readers and Twitter clients will then be able to 'frame' your content in the manner you find so abhorrent. Of course, you'll then be called Mr Stupid of Stupid Town in the Stupid Corner of the Stupid Bit of the internet, and you'll lose a load of readers, but, hey, you brought that on yourselves."

However, this is not a free RSS feeder but a paid app. True Pulse are charging for their product itself and not their content, but they are inadvertently profiting from the content produced by another provider. Also, by using NYT in their advertising, they are profiting from the NYT brand.

Robert Christie, a spokesman for the Times Company, has reportedly said that the Times is willing to make a deal with Pulse's creators, as it has in the past with other paid RSS readers. "We want to be clear that we are willing to work with Pulse, but only under our terms of use," said Christie to the Times.

Still, it does make me wonder about the iPad, will we need to pay for an RSS feeder and then also pay to read the full articles on news websites that install a paywall? As the New York Times is about to close off its content behind such a paywall, shouldn't is also be looking to application creators and young developers that just might be able to help drag old, traditional publishers into the 21st century? Wasn't the iPad supposed to save the newspaper industry? Can anyone explain how that was supposed to work?

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