The Firestorm After the “Snow Fall”
“It took The New York Times hundreds of hours to hand code ‘Snow Fall’ …we made a replica in an hour.” — scrollkit.com
We’re content strategists here, not lawyers, but it’s reasonable to assume that Scroll Kit had used the Times’ content for commercial purposes without permission, which is a violation of the Times’ terms of service. And since Scroll Kit would hope to profit from its demo, that would not be considered fair use. Clearly, instigating a beef with the Times has earned Scroll Kit some attention. What’s less obvious is what hope it offers publishers drawn in by the prospect of dazzling readers with their own record-breaking, buzz-worthy visual content presentations. And questions of where inspiration ends and imitation (or theft) begins are not necessarily cut and dry.
While the Times did set the bar Cascade Mountain–high for jaw-dropping visual narrative content, the media company cannot claim to own just any immersive online storytelling experience that integrates parallax scrolling, 100-percent-width photography, embedded video, slideshows, and interactive data visualizations. The Times can’t even prevent other two-syllable natural disaster stories, as the Guardian’s equally gripping “Firestorm” proves (or other snowy tales of peril, in the case of Outside’s “Lost On Everest”). An idea cannot be copyrighted, but an expression of an idea can. The Times could claim that “Snow Fall” is a unique expression that contains protected content and make the case that its design and code are part of that collective work.
Brown, who studied filmmaking at New York University (and whose Twitter bio states the mission “Trying to make the internets more cinematic”), has said that his goal was not to rip off the New York Times, but to show that article pages can be customized by non-programmers and can achieve similar functionality to what they see in “Snow Fall.” As Brown writes via email, “We’ve created a visual editor that gives you a high level of control over an individual page. The pages you design are then able to be easily integrated into a preexisting site.” When asked how much programming knowledge a Scroll Kit user would need, he replies: “[Zero.] And that’s the point. Engineers are often so much more expensive to hire than designers.”
Not all storytelling is equal.
Whatever you make, though, please don’t call it “Snow Fall.”