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Murdoch newswire sues over 'hot news'

Alleged copyright breach causes controversial claim

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News agency Dow Jones Newswires is suing an online news distributor based on US law's controversial 'hot news' doctrine. The court-created right came into being in 1918 and has recently been revived in internet cases.

Dow Jones says that Briefing.com breaches its copyright by copying its headlines and stories and selling them to subscribers. But it also says that it breaches the hot news doctrine.

Copyright does not apply to facts, but the hot news doctrine extends some protection to factual information for a period of time, while the information is still 'hot news'.

The US Supreme Court said in 1918 that the news agencies which invested in reporters covering war zones deserved protection for the information they gather in order to recoup that investment.

It gave companies a quasi-property right over information for the first time and became law across the US. It was later taken off the federal statute books but states were allowed to keep the rule as state law.

It lay largely unused until Associated Press (AP) revived it last year to hold another agency to account over the alleged copying of its material. That case was settled out of court.

Now Dow Jones is seeking to assert the right against Briefing.com. Dow Jones is part of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, which bought it as part of the Wall Street Journal group in 2007. Murdoch's UK newspaper titles will start charging for access to their websites this summer.

Dow Jones' court filing to the US District Court for the Southern District of New York claims that Briefing.com bases its business model on "the early and systematic taking of the proprietary content published by media organizations like Dow Jones. While those companies might derive some content from their own legitimate news-gathering operations, they also unfairly ride for free on the backs of others".

"By instantaneously cutting and pasting into their own products the reports of news events uncovered and verified by other news outlets at significant expense, they offer a pirated product at a cheaper cost," the claim said. "The misappropriation of news and other content not only devalues news products, it also threatens the very economic structure upon which journalistic enterprises such as Dow Jones are built and on which its customers depend."

Copyright protects journalistic works, but not the bare facts which they report. Dow Jones claims that Briefing.com infringes its copyrights because, it says, the company copies its reports exactly.

"Briefing.com has copied verbatim, or nearly verbatim, substantial portions of Copyrighted Works carried on the [Dow Jones Newswire (DJN)] service and written and edited by DJN employees," it said.

As well as the direct copyright-infringement claim, Dow Jones says that its hot news rights are being infringed.

"The timeliness of business and financial reporting is essential to many subscribers to the DJN service," said its claim. "Briefing.com often copies verbatim or nearly verbatim from the DJN and distributes a breaking news headline reported by a Dow Jones journalist before or at the same time that The Wall Street Journal has the opportunity to distribute the news itself through its website."

"This free-riding of the type practiced by Briefing.com is likely to undermine Dow Jones' economic incentive to invest in the costly process of reporting time-sensitive news in the manner of the DJN," it said.

The company asked the Court to award it the profits made by Briefing.com and asked it to declare its activities unlawful.

AP's hot news case last year was taken against All Headline News, which settled the case out of court, admitting it had "improperly used" AP's material and paying the agency an un-named sum.

See: The court filing (115-page/7MB PDF)

Copyright © 2010, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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