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Copyleft newspapers: The Guardian's Open Platform, and why it matters

In a move to hitch copyleft ideals to its repository of 1 million articles, The Guardian wants to give Web site and app developers everything it has written since 1999, for free

In a move to merge copyleft ideals with a repository of 1 million articles from the last decade of publishing, The Guardian wants to give Web site and application developers everything it has written since 1999, for free. But there's a catch: developers have to agree to run advertisements alongside their creations, and The Guardian dictates exactly what those ads are -- because it makes money from each one.

It's a free product called Open Platform, incorporating a content API and a collection of data sets called the Data Store. It delivers the site's massive collection of articles and blogs to developers, and therefore applications, which request them. Articles are appropriately tagged to identify their content -- 'Middlesex', 'Obama inauguration', 'pensioner uprising of 2015' -- and made available in XML, Atom or JSON formats. An iPhone app, for example, could deliver information about whichever town you're standing in, by plucking articles about that town from The Guardian's database. Just make sure there's room for an ad.

Why is The Guardian doing this?

As a news Web site covering topics from technology to fashion, music to culture, it's built up quite the repository of information. Years of editorial copy just sitting in a dark corner of the Web site, like a discarded X-Factor runner-up, just waiting for some entrepreneurial forward-thinker to pipe up and drag it back into the public eye.

And the public eye -- or 'eyeballs' as the media sales industry so delicately calls them -- is exactly what The Guardian wants. Every application using its content is promoting the newspaper's name and brand, while simultaneously growing The Guardian's ad network, commercial reach and, ultimately, its revenue.

The New York Times has been doing something similar for a month or so. Its version is called the Article Search API and lets developers search, scrape and republish New York Times articles, images and other data in any app they choose to create. The difference is that while The Guardian allows for commercial uses of its API, the New York Times does not, and so does not force the inclusion of its advertisements.

The small print 

There are some other major restrictions to Open Platform. Content pulled from the database cannot be saved for offline use for more than 24 hours, so the creation of pseudo-encyclopaedic applications, as suggested by one user, would currently be impossible. Also, applications cannot ask for information from The Guardian more than 5,000 times per day (the New York Times also imposes this same limit), and all content pulled into an app must link back to the original Guardian article.

Despite fairly tight restrictions and unashamed commercial intent, we applaud what The Guardian is doing. And despite the fear of seeing tens of thousands of Web sites and iPhones sporting glaring Guardian logos and the newspaper's current ad campaigns, we're curious to see what applications rear their heads. Since developers are free to run their own ads alongside those of The Guardian, there's commercial promise for developers exploiting the API, and that could make for apps that don't actually suck.

Why this is an important step for newspaper publishing 

This kind of pro-activeness, to move from being just a newspaper Web site, to a global source for current and historic knowledge, is admirable. It's indicative of one way publishers can monetise content in the future, as publishing moves away from print, and the Web moves away from just sites.

But whether or not it succeeds as a free and ad-supported medium remains to be seen, and the terms and conditions state the service could be axed at any time. For now, developers should head here for all the technical details, or for a working example, have a look at the Cass Sculpture Foundation's Web site, which is already pulling in news content about its artists.