March 13, 2014

As a startup devoted to reprinting and annotating lyrics, Rap Genius has an expansive view of fair use baked into its very being. Its News Genius project is no less aggressive when it comes to copyright: It has published an annotation of an entire Newsweek article that claims to identify Bitcoin founder Satoshi Nakamoto.

Reached by phone, News Genius Executive Editor Liz Fosslien said using someone else’s article is somewhat unusual for News Genius, which prefers to annotate what she calls “primary source” documents, like Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech or U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s speech accusing the CIA of intruding on congressional computers. (It has, though, reprinted a New York Times op-ed and part of a Rolling Stone article.)

The Newsweek article “was an interesting case where they wanted to use and expose what they thought was incorrect reporting,” Fosslien said. The “they” in this equation is News Genius’ community, who wield great power as they build influence within the site.

An editor on News Genius is usually an unpaid contributor “who has proven they’re making intelligent, eloquent, readable annotations,” Fosslien said. The next step up is moderator, and some lucky folks are given “verified accounts” — “professors,” Fosslien said, as well as experts like New York Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo and Rap Genius investor Marc Andreessen.

In fact, Andreessen was quite involved in annotating the Newsweek article. “Is there anyone left on planet Earth who does not screen their phone calls? What is this, 1962?” Andreessen writes about one line in the Newsweek story. “Virtually everyone trained in any aspect of finance in the last 50 years has been taught to work in reverse Polish notation,” he shoots back at another sentence.

Fosslien was originally an enthusiastic unpaid member of News Genius’ community. “I’ve always been sort of interested in the future of media,” she said. She was an economics major in college and worked in consulting strategy and business development before joining the company officially in January. News Genius has about three dedicated employees including her, Fosslien said (one person is on the tech side), and she said Rap Genius has been giving the project, launched last year, more attention in the last couple of months.

The possibility of annotating Ben Bernanke speeches first drew Fosslien to the site, and she says good annotations have two features: “One is something that really adds to a piece,” she said, and “the second is it’s still supposed to be entertaining. To me a lot of News Genius is not just informing but making people excited about the news.”

Fosslien said News Genius considered the Newsweek article “sort of fair use.” Poynter faculty Ellyn Angelotti said News Genius’ annotations “add transformative value that would support fair use as a defense. Among the four factors a court would use to determine fair use, Angelotti said, the annotations’ purpose and character “would likely offer one of the strongest elements of support.” But the nature, amount and effect of use may be less favorable to News Genius’ case.

“The effect of Rap Genius’s republication would likely discourage readers from going to the original Newsweek article (because they could read the entire article on the Rap Genius website),” Angelotti wrote in an email. (The Newsweek annotation has drawn more than 13,000 page views.) Rap Genius could conceivably develop an API “that would create an overlay on the original article to provide the annotation without republishing the article,” Angelotti said. “And, of course, Rap Genius could always request a license to republish the article.”

Newsweek hasn’t been in touch, Fosslien said, adding that the publication has “been very quiet on the whole issue” of its Bitcoin reporting. Newsweek Editor-in-Chief Jim Impoco has not yet replied to a request for comment from Poynter.

News Genius has no revenue model yet, Fosslien said. “We received a large investment from Andreessen Horowitz.” (Timothy B. Lee used the word “inexplicably” to describe the investment.) The site’s “focus is on perfecting the product” at the moment; “eventually we’ll roll out a monetization strategy,” she said. News Genius recently rolled out a feature that allows people to embed annotations.

One of her favorite News Genius projects so far was annotating President Obama’s most recent State of the Union address, for which the site enlisted a class of eighth-graders, who mostly asked what certain things meant and moderators answered. That emphasized the handmade nature of News Genius, Fosslien said: “Every single action and every single message is sent by a person. It’s really like a collaborative community project.”

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Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City…
Andrew Beaujon

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