Snow Fail: The New York Times And Its Misunderstanding Of Copyright

You remember Snow Fall, don’t you? It was that awesome interactive reporting piece by The New York Times that everyone talked about for a week.

It was called “the future of online journalism.” It was praised as a way for The New York Times to courageously battle back against online upstarts like Buzzfeed and their non-serious cat spreads. Or to not change the company’s fortunes at all.

It even won a Webby! (Oh yeah, and a Pulitzer.)

The New York Times spent months and had an entire team working on the creation of Snow Fall, and it shows. But what if I told you that you could recreate the same interactive experience in just about an hour? You’d like that, wouldn’t you?

Well, The New York Times wouldn’t.

Cody Brown, co-founder of interactive web design tool Scroll Kit, did just that.

He recreated the Snow Fall piece using Scroll Kit to show that you didn’t need an army of developers or designers to create the same type of interactive storytelling. In fact, the tools exist today to build other compelling narratives that take advantage of the combination of text, and video, and images.

To show how easy it was, Brown recorded a video of the process, showing how a user could create the same type of experience in under an hour. And he uploaded it to YouTube, and posted it to the Scroll Kit website. There, he introduced it this way:

“The NYT spent hundreads of hours hand-coding ‘Snow Fall.’ We made a replica in an hour.”

The video lived there for about a month, Brown tells me, before receiving a letter from The New York Times legal team, demanding that the video be taken down. After consulting with Scroll Kit’s legal counsel, the team complied with the takedown request, kind of. They actually set the video to private on YouTube so that no one could see it.

But they kept the line about making a replica of Snow Fall on the website. Because, well, it was true.

It wasn’t long before another C&D nastygram from The New York Times arrived, demanding that they not only delete the video from YouTube — which they eventually did — but that they remove any reference to The New York Times from their website.

From Scroll Kit’s perspective, the video was only meant as a way to instruct others about how easy it can be to build a compelling interactive experience, not as a way to aid and abet terrorism copyright infringement.

Brown said the Scroll Kit team was “super excited” to see Snow Fall released and the amazing reception to it. They had been been working on their tools for longer than the NY Times had been working on Snow Fall, and saw it as a validation of their startup. But at the same time, it also represented the inequality between publications that can afford to create interactive stories and those that can’t.

“It’s become a symbol of the potential of journalism, but also the barrier to how something like that could be made,” Brown told me.

If the knock against Snow Fall was that only someplace like The New York Times can afford to create something like that, Brown believes Scroll Kit is the tool that would get costs down enough for smaller organizations and independents to enable a whole new set of unique web experiences.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the legal resources to fight The New York Times — Brown admits that much. But for now, the tiny startup is holding fast and keeping The New York Times reference on its website, and have told the Grey Lady as much.

Unfortunately, she is not amused. She is offended! Peep her legal team’s most recent response, from Senior Counsel Richard Samson:

Dear Mr. Brown:

We are offended by the fact that you are promoting your tool, as a way to quickly replicate copyright-protected content owned by The New York Times Company. It also seems strange to me that you would defend your right to boast about how quickly you were able to commit copyright infringement:

The NYT spent hundreds of hours hand-coding “Snow Fall” We made a replica in an hour.

If you wouldn’t mind using another publication to advertise your infringement tool, we’d appreciate it.


Richard Samson