Has the New York Times finally started charging people to read its news online? Not yet.
But it sure looks like the Times is charging online readers if you visit Apple’s iTunes Store, which is selling two different New York Times (NYT) iPhone apps at 99 cents a pop.
The Times has nothing to do with either app, both of which are called the “New York Times Mobile Reader.” And both are supposed to do the same thing: Spit out the paper, along with other Web content like podcasts, in iPhone-friendly form.
You’d think the Times would want Apple (AAPL) to remove the miniprograms, if only to protect the value of the paper’s own app, which is both free and very good.
When I pointed out the apps to a Times spokeswoman on Tuesday, she asked around and later confirmed that the two apps “are not authorized and our legal department is looking into the matter.” But as of Thursday morning, the apps are still there, ranked No. 14 and No. 18 on Apple’s list of top paid news apps.
As Josh Quittner notes, hijacking publishers’ names and content and turning them into paid apps isn’t uncommon at iTunes. I count at least eight such offerings among the top paid news apps at the online store.
But it shouldn’t be that hard for Apple to put the kibosh on this stuff. For instance: It ought to be fairly obvious that developer Chad Rivoli, who has produced one of the “New York Times” apps–along with ones that boast brands like CNET, Fox News, the BBC and the Drudge Report–is not authorized to do so.
But Apple’s approach to this is weirdly passive. Here’s the statement I got from Apple PR’s Trudy Muller yesterday:
As an IP holder ourselves, we understand the importance to developers of protecting their IP. We have a process in the App Store for developers to alert us to possible IP infringement. When we’re notified, our policy includes the removal of the infringing app until a resolution is reached between the parties.
If this approach sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a lot like the one Google (GOOG) takes toward YouTube copyright complaints: Put it up, then take it down if someone complains.
In Google’s case, the company claims it has no idea what people are uploading to YouTube–anyone can throw anything up there. And that approach may well be protected by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (we’ll see). But Apple knows exactly what it’s selling via iTunes because it approves every new app individually.
Maybe the Times isn’t hell-bent on griping to Apple because it has other priorities, like working with Apple on something for the upcoming wondertablet. And maybe every other publisher whose stuff is getting repurposed for profit doesn’t want to bother Apple either. Hard to believe there is really big money being made here, after all.
All I know is that this situation wouldn’t last long at all on the regular Internet: Good luck starting a “New York Times” Web site and charging people to visit–or even just linking to the paper while using its iconic “T.”
What’s different about iTunes?
UPDATE: At least two other publishers are aware, and unhappy, about unauthorized apps. CNET tells AdAge that it has asked at least one of the developers using its stuff to take it down, apparently without success.
And Fox News says it complained directly to Apple in December, says MediaWeek. In that case, though, it seems to had at least some effect: “Mobile News Pro — Fair & Balanced” is still available in the app store, and still aggregates Fox News content, including radio feeds. But the app’s description does note that it has “removed FOX wording per FOX request.”