The case stems from a dispute between the Scranton Times and the Times Leader of Wilkes-Barre. Last November, shortly after the Times Leader launched a Scranton edition, the Scranton Times accused its rival of copying portions of obituaries -- dates of death, details about the funeral, etc. -- from the paper's print edition and Web site.
That type of basic information typically isn't copyrightable, so the Scranton Times raised other claims, including an allegation that the Times Leader misappropriated "hot news" or exclusive and time-sensitive data -- in this case, funeral information.
Many observers had assumed that lawsuits for misappropriating hot news wouldn't get far in the Internet era -- where news inevitably spreads as soon as it's posted online. But a judge in New York recently revived the concept. In that instance, the judge refused to dismiss a lawsuit by The Associated Press against All Headline News for allegedly rewriting the AP's "hot news."
The Pennsylvania judge, however, cast a more skeptical eye on the Scranton Times's allegations -- which Eric Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University, called "scoffable." In an opinion issued last week, U.S. district court judge Richard Caputo rejected that claim, ruling that reprinting details from obituaries wasn't a misappropriation of hot news. Even though the information about upcoming funerals was time-sensitive, Caputo found that the Times Leader's alleged copying of them didn't pose a threat to the Scranton Times's business. (The case is still alive, but the ruling makes it harder for the Scranton Times to prevail.)
If that reasoning is followed by other judges, it could put the kibosh on other lawsuits between Web publishing companies who sue each other about the reposting of purely factual information. In addition to The AP's lawsuit against All Headline News, Gatehouse Media also recently sued The New York Times Co.'s Boston.com for allegedly scraping headlines and first sentences. That case settled earlier this year, but some observers thought Boston.com could have prevailed had it gone to trial.