If it can be said that Apple’s iPad has set the technology world abuzz about the capabilities of tablet computer technology, then a new app for the iPad has set the applications capability of that platform completely on fire.  The app – Flipboard – is a new take on a personal, social network news feed aggregator with interesting repercussions for more than just the news publishing industry.  Major kudos to Joel Johnson’s post at Gizmodo and Mathew Ingram’s thoughts at the GigaOM Network for prompting further discussion.

For the uninitiated, Flipboard basically turns your iPad into a personalized digital magazine, whereby selected content based upon your Twitter and Facebook updates is fed to the app for your consumption via a beautifully designed, magazine-styled content interface.  Wired’s review of the app gives a nice overview of its capabilities, but sometimes seeing is believing:

The main issue that is causing concern refers to content “scraping” – a technique for extracting essentially unstructured content off the web and repurposing that data into a different format or presentation model.  An example may be online price comparison engines on the Web – taking different prices for a widget from each retailer and placing these prices into a tabular format for comparison.  With respect to Flipboard, the original developer of the RSS standard and recognized “father of modern-day content distribution” on the web, David Winer, talks about scraping by the Flipboard in far greater detail than I could ever hope to do. I neither affirm nor deny, and otherwise reserve comment on, the general propriety of the use of this technique online (c’mon…I’m a lawyer…;).  Instead, my focus here is on the problems created under copyright law that are posed by it – problems which are not new to online content publishers ad providers.

Unlike a standard RSS feed that one can subscribe to for online content (i.e. my blog feed above), Flipboard apparently runs a content “parser” on its servers to pull the content from the specific website for presentation in the app via a “thumbnail” image, with the option to read the entire work from a link within an embedded browser window.  This is where things start getting gray…and interesting from a legal perspective. Under U.S. copyright law, copyright owners have exclusive rights to their original works of authorship once fixed into a tangible medium of expression – such as the exclusive right to reproduce their work, or transform their work in such a manner as to create a ‘derivative work” of it.  The authors/copyright owners can choose to license any of these exclusive rights as they deem fit – the key element being “choice”. Most website terms of use specifically limit any rights to content contained within a site to a limited right to use (i.e. read) the content on the site, with other rights expressly reserved in either the website owner or its licensors.  Terms of use on a site, however, are designed to work with people, not web bots indexing the web or parsers out collecting content. There are ways for website operators to restrict web bots,  but content creators should not have to “opt out” of having a content scraper “copy” their content — it’s their content to license as they see fit, so why shouldn’t companies seeking to repurpose this content (especially for-profit) maintain the onus to receive permission to do so?

Part of the answer may turn on certain limitations on these exclusive rights (known as the “fair use” doctrine under copyright law), its application under these circumstances, and the practicalities of online content distribution.

More to come in Part II…so stay tuned!

*Please note that links outside of LegalIntangibles.com may become inactive over time.

Related Posts

2 thoughts on “Scraping Under the Surface of the Flipboard: Part I

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *