By paulgillin | March 23, 2011 - 4:49 am - Posted in Business News, Newspapers, OnlineMedia, Paywalls

It took The New York Times more than a year to design its paywall, and it took the rest of us about 24 hours to figure out ways around it. Ah, the wisdom of crowds.

The Times‘s paywall won’t go up in the U.S. until next week, but it’s already in full flower in Canada, where a programmer named David Hayes has come up with a bookmarklet that vaporizes the Javascript overlay that blocks a non-paying reader from accessing an article. Drag the “NYTClean” tool to your bookmark bar and click it when you want to read.Voilà. Read on to learn how it works.

The Times has also asked Twitter to disable an account someone created last week that uses the social media exemption in the paywall design to permit free access. The feed is called FreeNYTimes, but we don’t expect it to be around very long. The Times charges trademark infringement, which is pretty ridiculous, since someone will simply reconstitute the same idea under a different name. On the other hand, the Times had no alternative, since the account doesn’t violate any of its terms of service.

Joshua Benton dissects this emerging cat-and-mouse game, and also explains how Hayes’ workaround works. The Times chose a novel way to intercept and block visitors who exceed the limit of 20 free articles per month. Instead of denying them access to the content, the site covers the article with a Javascript overlay while leaving the full article visible but obscured in the background. Blocking Javascript is easy. In fact, browsers let you do it  by default. NYTClean basically strips some tags from the HTML source code that the browser sees so that the Javascript overlay doesn’t show.

The Twitter workaround is simpler and much tougher to prevent. It takes advantage of a unique provision in the Times‘ terms of service that permits links from social media sources to go around the paywall. The Times should be commended for acknowledging the importance of word-of-mouth marketing, but it also created a gaping hole in its revenue plan in the process.

Consider this: The entire contents of nytimes.com are available as RSS feeds, which presumably aren’t going away when the paywall goes up. Free services like Dlvr.it can take any RSS feed and deliver it through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Buzz and any number of other social outlets. All you have to do is purchase one free subscription, grab all the RSS feeds and syndicate them through the social network of your choice. Everyone in your circle can now share your subscription. That’s what @FreeNYTimes.com is doing. Anyone can do the same thing in about a half hour.

Which means that if the the Times’ sincerely wants to shut down rogue operations like @FreeNYTimes, it is buying into a giant whack-a-mole game. Except maybe the Times isn’t all that worried about those scallywags. Joshua Benton quotes Times executives as being concerned about violations, but not inclined to throw too many resources at preventing them. They say any preventive scheme will be defeated by a small number of geeks, but the vast majority of readers won’t go to the trouble of seeking out the workarounds. They’ll just shell out the $15-$35 per month. As Benton points out, it’s been possible to get the Wall Street Journal for free for years, but most people don’t go to the trouble.

It’s a balancing act for the Times. Make it too easy for operations like @FreeNYTimes to flourish and you undercut the revenue model of a subscription system that reportedly cost more than $30 million to build. Try to whack every mole and you end up employing armies of lawyers and people to track down violations. We’re sure there will be plenty more to report on this story.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011 at 4:49 am and is filed under Business News, Newspapers, OnlineMedia, Paywalls. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

10 Comments

  1. March 23, 2011 @ 6:37 am



    Paul, as always, great insight into one of your passions here. Love following this evolving story through your lens

    Posted by Tyson Goodridge
  2. March 23, 2011 @ 11:00 am



    There will surely be browser plugins and websites that make it very easy to evade the paywall, but so what?

    Web ad sales continue to grow despite the availability of easy-to-use AdBlock plugins and iTunes succeeds despite easily accessible pirated music.

    I would suggest that the people who bother evading the paywall are the people who were probably not going to pay for it anyway. If the paywall were made airtight, most of them would simply stop visiting.

    Consider Microsoft’s tacit approval of piracy in developing countries. Sure, they’d love it if everyone using Windows paid full retail for it. But if people are unable or unwilling to pay, the company certainly doesn’t want to drive them into the arms of its free Linux competitors.

    Assuming you’re going to implement a paywall, I think the Times has a reasonable approach that could actually work. The price is way too high, however.

    Posted by Eli
  3. March 23, 2011 @ 11:16 am



    Paywalls won’t work without micropayments (although I now get on there for free because of a free offer from Lincoln…)

    But apps will. I’m still hoping that Ol’ Rupe can find a working pricing model.

    I’m waiting for somebody to shut down their internet site and exclusively use an app. (I may be waiting a long time, uh?)

    The Wall Street Journal might be one.
    Various specialized journals might be some more.

    But if you’re the publisher of something which is just filler between a jillion ads, you’re either hyper local (like the Hoboken Reporter, or the Jersey City Journal,) or you sucking vacuum.

    Posted by msbpodcast
  4. March 24, 2011 @ 12:16 am



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  5. March 24, 2011 @ 3:10 am



    I think you’re right. Someone is always going to figure out how to hack paywalls, but they weren’t likely to pay in the first place. Benton actually makes an interesting point about that: The people who figure out the workarounds are actually more motivated to share content because they went to all that trouble to get free access. So they actually have marginally greater value than the typical passerby. And your Microsoft analogy is appropriate. That company threw resources at piracy prevention for years and then realized that the amount of sales it was actually losing to piracy was pretty small. People who steal stuff are usually not good prospects in the first place.

    Posted by paulgillin
  6. March 24, 2011 @ 3:11 am



    Thanks, Tyson. The decline of newspapers and the rebirth of journalism is a topic if constant inspiration for me. I appreciate your comments and updates.

    Posted by paulgillin
  7. April 7, 2011 @ 9:37 pm



    The NYT has a *vastly* overinflated idea of its own importance, to think that I’d pay for it – much less spend precious time *hacking* it…

    I.e. if the Gray Lady won’t put out (YUCK… What a metaphor) there are plenty of other “Girls” who will…

    Posted by Merinas van der Lubbe
  8. April 26, 2011 @ 9:23 am



    You don’t need a hack. Just delete your nytimes cookies.

    The Times can’t block you based on IP address because you could be on a NAT-driven LAN or WLAN in which every computer seems to have the same IP. And they don’t want to block entire routers.

    So the paywall uses cookies instead. Waste them and you’re through.

    Of course, the larger argument applies here just as it does to music piracy. Do you really want to strip revenue away from something that benefits your life? Because the Times does; if it didn’t, you wouldn’t notice or care about paywalls in the first place.

    Ten years ago the anti-DRM argument, espoused by the Doctorows of the world, was that piracy actually increased CD sales and promoted artists. The numbers since then irrefutably prove that argument has failed.

    To my knowledge, no band in world history has generated so much as $1m in total digital music sales without being signed by a label first — far worse results than came via the original, admittedly corrupt label business model, in which at least *some* artists succeeded.

    And today the incentive to excel is a musician is much lower than it was pre-Napster, the quality of music is much worse than pre-Napster, and it’s harder than ever for a musician to make a living.

    The real problem with journalism is much simpler: Journalists generally don’t know anything about their supposed areas of expertise.

    The world is certainly full of supposed tech journalists, for instance, who never worked in IT, never took a single course in CS or EE, and are, in their writing, simply echoing the remarks of others rather than generating any new value or insights of their own.

    Scale up the value and charge accordingly — that’s a real business model.

    Posted by Jason
  9. February 21, 2012 @ 3:42 pm



    […] in March of last year, it cost $40 million and took more than a year to design. That paywall was bypassed in under 24 hours with a simple bookmarklet designed to make the Times’ java overlay not show up. That’s […]