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The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post have begun legal action against Free Republic, a Republican-leaning Web site which re-posts their stories without permission. While the two papers cite their irritation with the site's infringement of their copyright, they also specify that it diverts readers and potential revenue away from their own Web sites.

Free Republic is run by a Web design house owner, Jim Robinson, who claims his use of the papers' articles is protected by both the US Constitution's First Amendment and by the 'fair use' doctrine of copyright law, which allows snippets of stories to be quoted.

Robinson vowed to do "whatever it takes" to win the case. "I will not back down," he said. His site, he claims, is paid for by donations and non-profit making, so his legal battle may well end up being funded by numerous organisations of the kind that will undoubtedly see the case as a battle between free-speech libertarians and the (to them) dodgy liberal establishment.

While the paranoid might be happy with that reason, it's unlikely to have figured highly in the minds of the papers' legal bods. But it begs the question of what it is they are getting so het up about. Certainly, Free Republic's readers, who get the chance to comment and argue online about published stories, aren't the sort who would visit the papers' own sites.

That said, there is a precedent. Last year, The Shetland Times successfully persuaded the Scottish courts to ban online publication The Shetland News from including ST stories within its own. SN's defence centred on the fact it wasn't publishing the stories, merely creating links from one site to the other. However, the successful prosecution hinged on the way SN displayed the linked stories in a frame within its own pages - in essence it was republishing them.

Interestingly, the National Union of Journalists, which, you'd have thought, would have been dead against the unauthorised (ie. unpaid) re-use of writers' work, isided with the SN on this one, according to ST MD Robert Wishart.

Of course, there's a difference between a publishing company ripping off another publishing company, and a amateur Web site doing the same. So if copyright per se isn't the deal, what about the financial aspect? Could it be advertisers, unsatisfied with the poor response to their banners, are moving away from traditional sellers of ad space, i.e. publications, to sites better able to deliver the volume of readers that will make Internet advertising - always a inexact science, unless you're in the smut business - pay.

For these new ad sites, look no further than the portals, currently one of the most vigorously-fought marketplaces in the Internet. No wonder, then, the likes of the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post will go to the extreme of suing an insignificant copyright infringer, if it will persuade advertisers not to walk. ®

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