The New York Times, a company that takes its reputation pretty seriously, made an awesome thing. Cody Brown, founder of a company called Scroll Kit, had reason to be excited — hey! the New York fucking Times made a thing that was SUPER RELATED to the product he’d been working on. Suddenly, everyone was talking about Snow Fall; about the multimedia aspect, about how engaging it was, about the darkly gorgeous visuals.

Companies do this all the time: something tangential to their product gets everyone excited, and they want to make a connection between the sudden buzz and their work. This is totally fair, and I’ve felt it — it’s the same urge you feel when someone else’s story reminds you of one of your stories, and you just have to jump in.

The connection, as far as I can tell, was this: one aspect of Snow Fall was the multimedia, long-scrolling navigation through the story. Scroll Kit seems to make software that may make it easier to make visually interesting long-scroll pages. Awesome. If I were trying to market Scroll Kit, I’d be thrilled, too.

“We made a replica”

Unfortunately, here are the words they chose to make that connection:

It took The New York Times hundreds of hours to hand code “Snow Fall.” …we made a replica in an hour.

This seems cute, but here’s what it risks implying:

  • Snow Fall was primarily a difficult front-end code problem, rather than an elegantly designed solution (research + media + writing + design + graphics + code) to a complex storytelling problem.
  • The NYT team is a bunch of suckers who spent too much time on this.

And, if you’re a lawyer, it can imply some bonus stuff:

  • This tool is for replicating stuff, like this article, which you can now check out here.
  • We think copying NYT content and putting it online so you can access it without paying for it or viewing advertisements is totally cool.
  • Here’s how to copy NYT content and put it online so even more people can access it without paying for it or viewing advertisements.

Look, copyright lawyers often come across as crummy writers, because they’re basically speaking a different language. But it’s their job to protect the brand, reputation, and intellectual property of the company they work for. This goes awry sometimes, but in this case it seems like the lawyer did about what he should have. The messaging on the Scroll Kit website was disrespectful and flippant about the NYT team’s work, they had apparently reproduced the work without permission, AND they advertise their tool as great for “replicating” sites.

Another way

The lawyer is not a content strategist. When you use sloppy words, IP lawyers are not going to send you a nice note saying:

Hey,

I noticed you reference the Snow Fall article on your site — that’s awesome, and we’re glad you were inspired by the story. Unfortunately, the way you reference our work lacks nuance. We would recommend the following approaches, either of which would be more respectful to our work and make you look better:

Write a blog post or article explaining what your product does, and why you see the Snow Fall piece as a validation of your vision.

Or reach out to any commentators who are implying that the technical aspects of the layout make a project like Snow Fall prohibitively difficult to produce, and alert them to your project. See if they might be interested in covering your product or running an interview with you.

Best of luck,
NotLawyerMcFreeContentStrategist

They are not going to do this, because it is not their job. It is your job to get your messaging right so it doesn’t confuse users, potential users, or even lawyers.

For help getting this stuff right, see @nicoleslaw’s extremely generous Strategy for Small Brands and @ticjones’s FREE Content Strategy for FREE.

Everybody chill out

Once the founder published the story and talked to media, the clumsy-messaging-meets-lawyer situation turned into a solid little internet tizzy.

I know this is a bummer, but not every letter from a lawyer is a news story. Not every routine, slightly over-formal note from a big company is a chance to proclaim they’ve TRASHED their reputation.

I suspect this particular story caught on because it fit into a few narratives that go down easy right now:

  1. Big companies don’t get copyright
  2. “Copyright infringement” is code for “disrupting the shit out of industry __
  3. Reputations burn fast and pretty

But this is not any of those stories. Let’s look for the real story, instead of the easy narrative. Let’s ask what the humans on both sides were trying to do, instead of assuming the worst and shoehorning it into a mold. Let’s all get better at reading carefully, looking at the words we use, and helping each other out.

And let’s all work on using better words the first time around — even the lawyers.