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Snowfallgate and Startups (madhatted.com)
52 points by bantic on May 24, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 26 comments

This analysis is tragically incorrect. The Times legal department in no way represents the Times newsroom or the developers who made Snow Fall. Reporters and developers love tools that let them tell stories like Snow Fall more quickly and inexpensively. There is only one reason the NY Times hasn't made another story like Snow Fall in the last 5 months: It's too damn expensive and time-consuming to replicate in a one-off way.

I work with hundreds of newspapers and a dozen or so have contacted me to ask how they could use Scroll Kit's technology in the past few days. In fact, one of my larger top-100 newspaper clients signed up to use Scroll Kit this week. They won't be the only ones.

In case you haven't noticed, newspapers need to find new ways of making money. And they needed it yesterday. Folks trying to monetize newspapers aren't worried about someone copying their article to demonstrate a use case (hell, this event probably drove meaningful traffic to the original), they're worried that they're not going to be able to stay in business. If you were like any digital director around the country, you didn't give a shit about copyright infringement. You only salivated over all the cool things you could be making and monetizing. Since most newspapers have no way of creating a Snow Fall type of article themselves, they'll use Scroll Kit, they'll use it at scale, and they'll sell premium ad units to monetize these articles in a more effective way than normal content. From my viewpoint, that's a real positive for those of us trying to keep journalism alive. All the surrounding conversation about copyright infringement is just so completely missing the point that it might as well be arguing about the right way to polish the brass on the Titanic.

finally! someone in this mess says something of substance!

jeremymims said:

> I work with hundreds of newspapers and

> a dozen or so have contacted me to ask

> how they could use Scroll Kit's technology

> in the past few days. In fact,

> one of my larger top-100 newspaper clients

> signed up to use Scroll Kit this week.

> They won't be the only ones.

looks like scrollkit's gambit, as misguided as it was, actually _worked_ for them. :+)


p.s. and maybe _i've_ made a mistake calling it "misguided". in one sense, sure, it was stupid to use copyrighted content from a protective source. but can anyone honestly argue that the brouhaha didn't get extra juice because it was "snow fall"? would an example based on "pride and prejudice" have garnered so much attention? yeah, right... i mean, i thought cody was a bit crazy because it seemed like he expected praise for scrollkit and he ended up with a shitstorm instead. but maybe, just maybe, he was crazy like a fox, and knew that a shitstorm was exactly what he needed right now.

So, the ends justify the means and it's all good because at least his startup got some publicity? Even if the "publicity" turns out to be a net win, what a terrible way to conduct yourself.

oh, puleeze. it's not as if they drowned orphan children.

they merely copied some text and pictures and stuff, and not for the purpose of "stealing" it, but to do a demo...

it's entirely possible a jury -- if it'd come to that -- would have ruled that what they did constituted fair use.

it hardly qualifies as "a terrible way to conduct yourself." indeed, in my opinion, such a charge borders on ludicrous.

plus recall, in america, you're innocent until proven guilty.


Ease off on the rhetoric. I'm not accusing anyone of anything, I don't think anyone did anything illegal and, for what it's worth, I thought the Times' lawyering was dumb and hamfisted at best.

But there was a right way for scroll kit to handle this and there was the wrong, easy way they chose. They could've said "Have you been blown away by features like The New York Times' 'Snowfall' or Pitchfork's cover stories? We'd like to show you Scroll Kit." And then put together their own demo video with their own work without a smarmy "it took us an hour to do what the Times did in months".

It's classless and low. But they got the publicity they wanted and seem to have a fan in you. Hoo ray.

OP here! Awesome stuff @jeremymims. Thanks for the insights.

"All the surrounding conversation about copyright infringement is just so completely missing the point" <- I completely agree, and that is my point. Scrollkit made a big deal out of the copyright issue, and that wasn't needed. At best they ended up with muddling noise- I think they could have taken their demo, pitched it to a few high-profile newsrooms, then made a big deal about changing the way XXX company delivers news. Instead, they had a very public spat with someone they should have been announcing a partnership with. If I had to pick one, I'd pick the former.

If this mess has landed Scrollkit a few customers, great. I suspect they could land more if they work with media companies instead of trashing their legal departments on a blog post :-p

I'm not quite sure how this earned a "gate" suffix. Linking to some NYT content is hardly wrongdoing of Nixonian proportions :-)

Also, I'm not sure that this negatively affected Scrollkit at all. The main effect of this story will have been to a) remind people about the Snowfall story and b) remind people that Scrollkit provides tools for creating similar content. Both are good outcomes for Scrollkit!

As for "relationships", I'm not sure what relationships Scrollkit can have damaged given that they had no existing relationship with the NYT. Perhaps some people affiliated with the NYT will see Scrollkit as an annoying upstart and perhaps the NYT staff will feel annoyed that Scrollkit is commoditizing a design concept that was pioneered by them, but that's a small part of the market for Scrollkit (and, by definition, a market that doesn't need Scrollkit because they already have in-house technology to do what Scrollkit does!).

I think it's a fairly healthy part of startup culture that a startup can figure out how a larger company is doing something inefficiently, come up with a faster, cheaper, better (?) alternative, and tell the world about it. Startups shouldn't be bullied by bigger, established companies in these situations, and we certainly shouldn't accept that the larger company had a legitimate reason for doing so. The "relationship" that the NYT wants to have with Scrollkit looks like a fairly abusive one to me.

Well it's not true that there was no existing relationship. And I'm not sure what anyone gains by your wild speculation.

The thing that confuses me more than anything is that the original pitch is so strange- "we made a replica in an hour!".

OK. If you showed me an advertising poster you really liked, I could fire up Illustrator and give you a decent replica in a couple of hours. Does that mean you should hire me as your new ad agency? Of course not. The actual act of piecing together a creative is tiny compared to planning it. Anyone who works in the startup industry ought to get that- the coding is often the least of your problems.

So, Scrollkit never claimed that they made a Snow Fall, they claimed that they were able to throw together a copy of it in a short time. So what? Why would that make me want to use it?

(also, fun to see that the founder of ScrollKit is no stranger to lifting UI concepts other sites have pioneered: http://codybrown.name/timeline/)

OK. If you showed me an advertising poster you really liked, I could fire up Illustrator and give you a decent replica in a couple of hours. Does that mean you should hire me as your new ad agency?

No, but if you just wrote Illustrator and there's nothing else like it on the market, I might want to buy a copy.

But then you've dramatically shifted from having advertising design done for you to buying a highly technical tool that allows you to create illustrations. If you are someone with no design or illustration experience, that isn't going to work out so great for you.

The story thats not being told is how those "hundreds of hours" spent building "snow fall" included direction, videography, 3d and 2d modelling and animation, photography, content-writing, design, coordination, and frontend development.

Scrollkit took just one aspect of that (frontend development) and stated "The NYT spent hundreds of hours hand-coding ‘Snow Fall.’ We made a replica in an hour."

Its outright dishonest, and devalues the great effort that others spent on it. I can understand why they are pissed.

This is Cody here from scroll kit.

You misunderstand how much time the Times spent making "Snow Fall." They spent six months and of those tens of thousands of hours in those six months, hundreds of it was spent hand coding the layout.

The experience involved in hand-coding the layout is painful and awkward and can be improved dramatically. Getting those hundred hours down to an hour is something we think everyone can get behind.

What it sounds like is that many of those hours were spent editing, re-arranging and designing the content, and you didn't account for any of that. It feels like saying "it took Neal Stephenson hundreds of hours to arrange the words for Reamde , and I've typed it out in six!"

I know right. Is like saying, it took so and so this much time to compose this song but I was able to replicate it in a few hours.

I'd argue that Scrollkit damaged their relationship with the NYT in order to ameliorate their relationship with Silicon Valley.

It's hard to tell Scrollkit's business model from their splash page (like the article says, the only copy is "we are looking for publishers with big stories to tell."), but if I were to guess, the 'big fish' like NYT/WSJ/etc. are never going to use scrollkit, at least in the short term: these are the publishers with dedicated engineering teams.

hello hn, this is cody from scroll kit. I want to respond to a few things.

1.) I had no plans to write a post about nytimes legal after their initial email. I simply complied with their demand and wrote them that I had taken down the video. Their next email, where they told me to remove all references to the Times from our site was pretty absurd and thought they should be called out for it. If you’re willing to take the risk, it’s a good idea for everyone to call out a big company sending overreaching legal requests. I can only imagine how many other startups don’t challenge their demands and are bullied into complying.

2.) The biggest misunderstanding here seems to be that we're somehow undervaluing the creative struggle, and the reporting/creation of assets, it took to arrive at "Snow Fall." This doesn't make much sense to me, it's a replica which by definition means the pieces are already there, we're just coming to it with entirely different code.

A big point to make is that it didn't take the Times hundreds of hours to make "Snow Fall", it took them thousands of hours. It's safe to say they spent, at least, a hundred + hours on JUST the assemblage of their content onto the page. It's that process that we have dedicated ourselves to improving. Which, for a lot of news orgs who don't have the resources of the Times, makes it possible for them to be able to experiment with these kinds of stories.

Another way of phrasing our tagline could have been something like:

We spent thousands of hours hand-coding scroll kit so you can make a replica of “Snow Fall,” in one hour.

NY Times lawyer Samson's response clearly indicates a complete lack of understand of what scrollkit is/does. He thinks it's a toolkit for replicating content, when it's a toolkit that can be used to replicate technique.

Scrollkit used bad phrasing. What they should have said -- "NY Times spent hundreds of hours building the groundbreaking Snow Fall article. With Scrollkit they could have completed it in only a few hours. Here's proof! p.s. NY Times Editors -- contact us and we'll be happy to get your next award-winning article built faster and cheaper!"

I think the NYT is overboard in saying that scrollkit can't make any claims...but the takedown of the video seems legally justifiable.

Before you say "Fair use!" and "it's educational!"...consider this example: What if I were to release a "How-to-Draw-Awesome-Cartoons" which was composed completely of examples of me redrawing the most famous Calvin and Hobbes strips? I'm not even physically copying Bill Watterson's assets, I'm redrawing them and telling people, "Hey, this is how you do it!"

Would you argue that Bill Watterson (who, for a time, was pretty vigilant about protecting the C&H brand from any kind of merchandise, a la Garfield) has no claim? I would argue that he does, because the reason why my How-to-Draw book is remotely interesting is because it exploits the appeal that Watterson worked to create.

If I were to make this How-to_draw book using only characters I've conceived myself, I might still be successful...but only if those characters have the same appeal as Calvin and Hobbes...and, as you can agree, that would be far harder than the actual how-to-draw content.

So I can see why the NYT is peeved that scrollkit is showing off their service by exploiting the goodwill and excellence that the NYT poured its resources into. However, I don't think NYT legal has a right to say "Don't use our name or compare yourself to us in any way". Scrollkit can make its own false claims (but then, they may be sued by a different stakeholder)

Did you miss the entire point of the post? Scrollkit should have known well beforehand that the NY Times would be totally against the use of their content in this manner. That they didn't shows that they don't understand their target market at all.

P.S. It's not the lawyer's job to understand what the product is or does.

I'll start out and say that the NYT's legal department was off the mark here...but they've been off-the-mark (i.e. heavy handed) in a lot of incidents...as far as I've seen, the journalists and developers who were part of Snow Fall didn't seem to give a shit, so maybe someone at NYT was like, "Well, someone do something".

So while NYT legal may be a bunch of blowhards, it's hard to say that they're quixotic takedown effort has any actual effect on journalistic innovation.

There is something highly off-putting about how scrollkit has carried itself in this. It's already been well pointed out that the "hundreds of hours" in making Snow Fall did not involve hand-coding, and that the barrier for storytellers to create "Snow Fall" like productions is not putting together the HTML/CSS, but actually making the content and doing the design work. And I say that as someone who has made a living building HTML and CSS.

Because if the substantial work of building a Pulitzer Prize level feature takes just an hour...then logic would seem to dictate that in about 5-10 hours, any given scrollkit user could create something quite epic (if not Pulitzer worthy), and yet, browsing through scrollkit's few exsmples in their Twitter feed, I don't see anything that comes close to delivering on the impressive design or content that Snow Fall had. And I'm not belittling them...that's not their fault. "Snow Fall" productions are hard, and the HTML/CSS editor used to create them is almost entirely tangential to their quality.

Do we really need to discuss the merits of scrollkit's purported claim, that "templates" are holding content creators back? Templates exist because in serious publishing businesses, there are not the resources to re-invent the HTML wheel, and templates as defined by CMSes do very important things, like represent content in a manageable, portable format. Anyone here who has happily moved their blog to Jekyll/Octopress, I believe, would agree with me. In any case, if we take scrollkit's philosophy to its logical conclusion, then the days of Flash and bespoke UI/UX were the glory days of content. And I'm being sincere here, some Flash apps/portfolio pages were amazing and have not yet been replicated at the HTML5 or even iOS level. And yet, Flash as a canvas didn't quite work out...

The reason why I'm going off on a rant here is that, unmentioned in the OP, is that scrollkit got $200,000 from the Knight Foundation in an initiative to promote journalistic innovation in the long battle to making online journalism viable and vibrant. (DocumentCloud, which most HNers might recognize as the progenitor of Backbone.js, Underscore.js, and several other useful Jeremy-Ashkenas-inventions, was also a Knight-funded initiative.) So there's something a little galling about how scrollkit, which was given 6 figures to aid journalism, is instead raising publicity for itself by dumbing down the already muddled discussion on content management.

And also, its exploitation of the emotions and confusion in the continuing debate over intellectual copyright is also a little annoying.

I disagree. There is a set of great storytellers, and a set of great developers, but these rarely overlap; an individual who embodies both attributes is vanishingly rare, and only elite organisations (e.g. the NYT) can afford to employ teams containing a critical mass of both talents. As a result, there are going to be lots of great storytellers out there who are "technologically constrained"; the one thing preventing them from creating the next Snow Fall is the fact that they simply don't know how to work with the technology necessary to do so, and nor does anyone they work with.

You might argue that these great storytellers could tell their stories without recourse to new technology, and you'd be right. But the same would apply to any new technology at any point in time. What Scrollkit is doing is what software developers have always done: made it possible for non-developers to do stuff that, previously, only those with direct access to talented developers could do.

I first read Snowfall on my phone from the HN link. As a multimedia experience, it went completely off the bad end plopping me down into Youtube player ever time I changed pages. After reading it, I had no idea why it made HN's front page unless there just happened to be a preponderance of gung-ho skiers active that night. It was only the next day that I viewed it in all its glory.

What kept me engaged that first night was the quality of the writing and to a much lesser extent the quality of the still photography. The multimedia added nothing to my understanding of the story. It was just facts that a good editor would make any reporter junior enough to include them cut from their work.

It's not the technology that keeps other newspapers from producing the same level of quality that the Times did with Snowfall. It is the lack of top notch writers and editors. Scrollkit won't turn Phantom Menace into A New Hope, or Harry Potter into The Hobbit. Changing the medium changes the message. This, however, says nothing about message quality.

I don't want to get in to a discussion of scrollkit's technical merits, so I'll concede for their sake that their current product is a technical marvel beyond what I could ever conceive.

That said, here is the key problem that scrollkit runs into: Content management. I never saw the Snow-Fall-reproduction video, but I'm assuming it involved cutting-pasting wide swaths of the final product into its editor. For the sake of argument, let's pretend that scrollkit's replica was pixel perfect.

OK, but here's the part that scrollkit does not solve at all: how does their tool manage the actual story-creation-editing process? Most writers do their writing in a text editor (Microsoft Word), then paste it into their CMS (Wordpress for example). Multimedia developers, ultimately, do kind of the same thing...build their thing (video, JS graphic, whatever) in their dev environment, and place its representation into the CMS.

OK, that's easy enough...until the writer decides that they want to remove a paragraph, switch others around, etc. etc...In a system like scrollkit's, which as far as I can tell, is a single page template editor...the writer cannot simply just select-all-delete-copy-paste because, well, that would delete the multimedia artist's work.

That's just one logistical hurdle, and probably the most minor one. But when you try to edit this piece with several people, you are going to run into major, show-stopping, hair pulling issues. This is hard to explain to developers, because we have such things as Git, automated testing, IDE's etc....imagine working on a codebase without any of those things. That is the world of virtually most content producers...which is why we have CMS and templates in the first place.

This is all descending into pedantics...but that's precisely the issue. Content producers, if you give them a bespoke tool to create something "beautiful", will happily work 24/7 doing such things as manually kerning text, fixing paragraph widows, hand inserting links over and over, etc. etc....because they don't know of any better way to do things. They don't realize how much time of their time they're wasting into reinventing the wheel. And when a production involves multiple people with varying objectives, you will have a serious clusterfuck.

And we haven't even gotten to the part of how these bespoke feature creations are linked (not just hyperlinked) into the creator's site.

So that's my issue. scrollkit solves (if it works completely as advertised) one of the least important problems in the online publishing workflow. Which is not to say that it's useless, but the problem is that it, IMHO, is doing a massive disservice by telling people that this, the problem they focus on, is the real barrier to creating compelling journalistic features.

On the one hand, I agree with the notion that "working with the established market" is a better business strategy.

On the other hand, kissing up to reactionary incumbent market forces and even compromising your product to appease them leaves me feeling really, really dirty.

It's a pragmatic choice. If you can afford to and still come out on top, I would prefer kicking their asses over kissing them.

nice post

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