How I Killed A Startup In 4 Hours (And Why I Don’t Regret It)

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Editor’s note: Milo Yiannopoulos is a journalist and broadcaster. His first book, The Sociopaths of Silicon Valley, will be published in 2015.

I hate activist journalism. But last week, I was responsible for the death of a startup. It was probably the fastest death in the history of the tech industry: four hours from launch to deadpool, by my reckoning.

If that sounds like boasting, well… I’m afraid it is. Let me explain.

Personalpaper.me, which launched last Thursday, promised something that, on the face of it sounded pretty great: throw the site a few URLs and it would print out those long articles you’d never get to on Instapaper or Pocket, package them up as a beautifully designed physical newspaper, and drop that paper in the mail to you — all for the equivalent of about $2 per “issue.”

This product, created by developers at the agency responsible for viral hit game Monument Valley, even, audaciously, offered to strip out ads to create a clean, readable format you could stick in your handbag and read on the subway.

You’ve probably spotted the problem already: personalpaper.me represents copyright infringement, unauthorised republication and illicit distribution on an industrial scale. In other words, its entire business model is predicated on theft.

I should say at this point that the agency that employs everyone connected to this launch, ustwo, has rapidly distanced itself from personalpaper.me. When I approached the company, asking what legal advice it had sought before launching a product that, if successful, might put out of business the publishers on whose content it relied, it denied that personalpaper.me had any connection to ustwo at all.

“I’m not aware of any details surrounding this,” the company’s spokesman told me when I reached out for comment. “This is not an ustwo product.”

Hmm. I found that hard to believe, given that 10 ustwo employees (and no one else), including one co-founder, had just tweeted a link to the site saying how pleased they were with it.

The lead developer responsible for personalpaper.me, Juan Delgado, and his colleagues at ustwo’s London office were quick to insist that the project was merely a “little personal experiment” that a “couple of guys in the studio thought would be cool.”

(Delgado tweeted that he was grateful for ustwo’s “support” in building the product, but later denied the company had been involved. Clearly someone got a worried email from the boss.)

Whether this was an official ustwo launch, the chaps behind it, all of whom are employed by ustwo, must have suspected it was a bit legally iffy. For one thing, despite accepting payments on their site, there was no company information, no privacy policy, no terms and conditions and no obvious means to get in touch with the people who had made it.

Juan describes himself as a “world class minimal DJ,” so he presumably understands that creative work has value and that seizing it and republishing it in another format for your own enrichment is wrong. To test that theory, I submitted a request for an issue comprising one article from Rolling Stone and two from Wired. My card was successfully charged.

Reader, I confess, I went a bit ballistic via email. Asked why his website was facilitating copyright infringement for commercial gain, Juan went quiet, then promptly took the entire site down. Needless to say, no refund has yet appeared on my card. And I never got a receipt for the transaction.

There’s a rather sad mea culpa on personalpaper.me’s website now. But, as I say, I don’t regret what I did — i.e. scaring its founders into yanking the product.

The indifference — and occasional contempt — with which Silicon Valley treats content businesses is laughable and offensive. For all their talk of “changing the world” and focus on crafting cute interfaces, I can’t think of a single technology company in history that has made much of a lasting cultural contribution.

What startup can boast an influence on our intellectual history equal to The Divine Comedy, or Paradise Lost, or… well, you get the idea. Which means that theft of content someone has paid for, and another person has labored over to bring pleasure and erudition to readers, simply cannot be justified.

There’s an impression, particularly among tech types who sneer at content in favor of “platforms,” that writing is worthless these days — especially on the web. But as media companies start getting their shit together and figuring out how to break even on content, and VCs start chucking money at content plays, that position can no longer be supported. The implicit nod it gave to platform businesses to rip off writers and publishers is well and truly a thing of the past.

If I were feeling charitable, I might concede that personalpaper.me probably meant well. Perhaps the designers at ustwo genuinely didn’t even think about the people whose livelihoods their startup was chipping away at, and just wanted to create a pretty product. But innocence and naivety are really no excuse for robbing other people of their paycheck.

I won’t lie. I’m glad this company is dead on the vine.

Silicon Valley, stop killing the things you love. A little modesty and thoughtfulness when dreaming up get-rich-quick schemes would go a long way. After all, if I were ripping off your code, stealing your photographs or stiffing you on your world-class minimal DJing invoices, the Internet would be ablaze at my temerity.

Oh, and Juan? You still owe me $2.