Offline reading apps have become a mainstream, sought-after utility in the mobile ecosystem. From Instapaper to Readability to Read It Later, it’s clear that more and more users value the efficiency and efficacy such services provide.

Readability, perhaps the best-looking app of its kind, was well-received at the AppAdvice offices, and Christine summed up the convenient service in her recent comparison:

…[T]he end result of Readability’s design is for the user to focus on actually reading the articles that they saved, rather than worrying about other stuff. If you don’t care about the other “fluff” like I do, then Readability is the perfect app for you.

We didn’t know it at the time, but it seems like Readability has inexplicably thrown publisher ethics into that otherwise inoffensive basket of neglected “fluff.” Unfortunately, that’s the one feature we simply can’t live without.

When you use Readability (or some similar service), you’re basically stockpiling a bunch of news reports and blog posts to peruse later on. Say you’re browsing the internet and see an interesting piece that’s just too long to finish during your mid-morning coffee break. All you’ve got to do is send the article’s link to your Readability account, and the story will be waiting for you whenever you’re ready. It’s an overly easy way to get your daily dose of pertinent information, and it’s an invaluable tool for Web-based writers and socialites alike.

Ironically, though, these are the very readers most likely to notice Readability’s sinister behavior.

See, when you’re reading the day’s saved articles in your Readability app, you’re given the option to share them at will (via email, Twitter, Facebook, etc.). It’s a fairly common feature, and all three major players offer identical implementation.

Except for one thing: attribution.

Regardless of your computer or mobile platform, when an article link is emailed or tweeted from inside Instapaper or Read It Later, those services will share the original article link (or a shortened version thereof). That way, the article’s official host is properly rewarded for its content. The standard economic model of internet publishing requires this kind of basic cooperation, and most blogs, aggregators, and apps are pretty good about citing sources and redirecting traffic.

Readability is not.

For some reason, when an article gets shared via this particular service, it ends up on Readability’s own servers. If viewing the article on their mobile devices, readers are presented with a formatted facsimile of the original content, and — though a small link of citation is provided — readers are not compelled to seek out or visit the original site. This approach neither drives traffic to the appropriate place nor properly cites the author’s work, and it violates the inherent goodwill required of such service providers.

The following examples will show exactly what Readability’s up to (click or tap the images to follow their displayed links):

Instapaper links a shared article to its original site.

As does Read It Later.

Readability hosts shared articles on its own servers.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that this is all an innocent (albeit irresponsible) oversight; Readability could simply be trying to provide its users with as streamlined a reading experience as possible. Indeed, the company’s browser-based layout does a fine job of mirroring its app, and that’s a big part of the service’s allure. Still, intentional or not, Readability’s current setup is tantamount to content theft, and that’s a problem for everyone involved.

Readability has not responded to our request for comment.

Update: Readability Responds To Us And Does The Right Thing

Great news! Readability has decided to do the right thing — and they did it so quickly, too. Please read our updated post.

They have now changed their policy to redirect those that click on the links back to the original source. You can see their response on The Verge.

As Dary said in the comments below:

Hi A.T.,

1. We’ve heard you – see our response here: http://www.theverge.com/2012/3…

2. If you reached out to us and we didn’t respond, I consider that a personal failing for myself and us as an organization. We’re typically very open to talking through these things, and I’m not sure how it fell through the cracks if it did. I’ll be looking into it. Apologies.

-Chris Dary
CTO, Readability