Leo Babauta: why publishers should thank Instapaper

Recently there was a bit of an online tangle between Marco Arment, the creator of Instapaper and the bloggers at 9to5Mac, partly started when they referred to his service derogatorily as “Instascraper”, implying that he stole their copyrighted content and republished and made money on it without permission.

This isn’t the only time I’ve seen the grumble that Instapaper is violating copyright and stealing ads/pageviews from publishers.

I’d like to make an argument for why Instapaper, and other save-for-later services such as Pocket, are not violating publishers’ copyright … and why publishers should actually thank these services.

First, Instapaper and Pocket and others are services that take an online article or blog post you’re reading, and save the text of the article for reading later without ads or other extraneous page elements. You can read the stripped-down article on their website, or on a device like the iPhone, iPad, or Kindle.

It’s important to note that this is something lots of readers, like myself, actually prefer to reading on a website with too many distractions. It actually makes me much, much more likely to read long articles this way – articles I probably would have skipped over before.

1. Not republishing. So why isn’t this a violation of copyright? Because while you’re able to read the copyrighted articles on the Instapaper website (and app), it’s not publicly published. It’s just saved for the user’s reading, and then you can share it via email or Facebook or the like, just like you could with the normal article.

2. Saving articles. Let’s be clear here: we can already save articles without Instapaper. If I’m reading a magazine on Time.com, or a blog, I can save this article to my computer for later reading. Or copy and paste the text into a Google Doc to read personally. Or print as a PDF, or print to paper. I can already do this, and actually I have done it a bunch of times before Instapaper came along. It was just harder, and not as nice to read in a text document or printed out as it is on the Instapaper site. It is also not as easy and nice to read on an iPad/iPhone or Kindle as it is with Instapaper.

3. Sharing articles. Let’s also be clear: we can already share these articles with our friends via email, Facebook, etc. without Instapaper. We can do that by using the links provided in an article, or by just copying and pasting into an email, or by sharing the link however we like. Instapaper is just another way to do that.

4. Making money. Let’s finally be clear about ads: while Instapaper does charge for its app (and sells some ads on the website), and so is making money, it does so not because of the content, but because of the service it’s providing. It’s making things a lot easier for me, as a reader, to save an article for later reading on any device I choose. That’s a valuable service to me, and I’m willing to pay for it. I’ve also already seen the ads on a website or blog, because I had to go there to save it for later, and I’ve already given them their dumb pageviews.

5. Helping readers. Instapaper is making my life, as a reader, so much easier. While I could save the article for reading myself, and strip all the extraneous elements, takes some time to do this. It’s probably so difficult to do that, that I’d skip reading the article. If I skip the article, I’m not getting value from Time.com or 9to5Mac (not that I read that site anyway) … and therefore I’m not going to become a loyal reader of theirs. By helping me as a reader, Instapaper is doing a favor to publishers it’s helping those publishers accomplish a goal, which is to get readers to actually read their stuff. Now, websites could make it easier for me as a reader by stripping away ads and sidebar elements and pop-ups and all the sharing buttons that I don’t need … but they don’t. They suck as a reading experience, and Instapaper makes it awesome for me as a reader. These sites should be paying Instapaper for helping their readers.

6. Bringing new readers. Actually, Instapaper does more: it even brings new readers to these publishers. Yes, by making it easy for me to actually read the article, I’m more likely to do so … which means I’m more likely to enjoy it, and want to share it. And guess what? Instapaper helps me to share the article with others sending new readers to these publishers.

So Instapaper helps the publisher (who already got money off me as a reader from their ads and pageviews) by helping the reader. The publishers should be doing this themselves, but aren’t, and so readers turn to Instapaper for help, and are willing to pay for that convenience. That’s a good deal for the reader, and for the publishers, who can go on selling their crappy ads, popups, and pageviews while still having people read and share their actual content.

It makes you wonder if the publishers care about the readers, or the pageviews and ads. Of course, you don’t wonder too much, because it’s pretty obvious.

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