Could Hearst iPhone Apps Bring Backlash?

Hearst Corp. last week unveiled its "let a thousand flowers bloom" approach to creating digital content for the iPhone. The magazine publisher plans to churn out thousands of iPhone applications focused on niche topics within categories such as celebrities, food, hobbies, and sports.

Hearst's LMK ("let me know") applications unit has already released some 70 titles in the App Store priced mostly at $1.99 and including apps tailored to fans of Angelina Jolie, the Boston Red Sox and Green Day. Sound like an expensive proposition? Hearst told The Wall Street Journal it can turn out the apps at low cost by using a similar template for each and linking to information from outside sources.

The publisher is paying for rights to photos but not other content pulled from traditional news outlets and blogs. The Angelina Jolie app, for instance, used a story from E! about why she didn't attend the Academy Awards and other material from the gossip blog Bossip. So the apps are, in effect, mini-content aggregators, drawing from different sites around Web.

If the LMK apps proliferate as planned and end up selling in measurable amounts, then it raises a question about whether content owners whose material is used in the apps will take issue with the apps or seek a piece of the App Store action. News publishers like the AP to News Corp. have long complained about sites like Google News and The Huffington Post hijacking their content.

So when people are paying upfront for apps that may contain even small amounts of their editorial content, it wouldn't be surprising to see some publishers take issue with the LMK apps even if the type of use falls within what is generally considered fair use of copyrighted material.

Last year, after receiving numerous complaints, Apple pulled more than 900 apps selling for $4.99 apiece from developer Perfect Acumen, which employed Indian and Pakistani programmers to crank out apps aggregating various types of Web content. According to the Journal article, Hearst has worked closely with Apple to insure that its release of multiple apps doesn't run afoul of the company's tight approval process. But it can't control how other content owners will react.

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