The suit, filed this week in federal district court in Boston against the Globe's parent company, The New York Times Co., alleges that the new local portals violate GateHouse's copyright and trademark by linking to GateHouse articles and displaying their headlines and first sentences.
"By usurping plaintiff's original news content in this manner," GateHouse argues in court papers, "defendant is targeting the very heart of plaintiff's business."
GateHouse also alleges that Boston.com's practice of deep-linking directly to GateHouse news articles results in users' bypassing the ads on the site's home page.
The New York Times Co. said in a statement that Boston.com's practice of aggregating headlines and snippets and providing links to other sites' articles is "common" and benefits users as well as GateHouse. "We believe Gatehouse Media's claims are without merit and we will prevail in this case," the company said in a statement.
The Fairport, N.Y.-based GateHouse, which operates 265 Web sites nationwide, including 125 neighborhood sites in Massachusetts, argued in its lawsuit that Boston.com is a competitor because its new sites offer "hyper-local news content presented in a virtual Town Hall format."
"Defendant products and services are targeted to the exact same consumers as plaintiff targets its products and services," the lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit complains specifically about the Globe's Newton site, which launched mid-November, and its even newer Waltham site. (The Globe has also launched a site for Needham, and reportedly intends to expand throughout eastern Massachusetts.) GateHouse alleged that the Newton site has uploaded more than 500 GateHouse headlines and ledes since debuting last month.
GateHouse added that it sent cease-and-desist notices, which Boston.com allegedly did not comply with. GateHouse said it then attempted to block any users with a Boston.com IP address from automatically scraping content, but to no avail. "Defendant posted original content to the infringing Web site the very next day," the lawsuit alleges.
Cyberlaw specialist Eric Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University, said that re-publishing headlines or first sentences was arguably a "fair use" of copyrighted material, adding that headlines and ledes often simply summarize facts. Facts, in themselves, can't be copyrighted.
But, Goldman added, while questions about whether reprinting headlines and excerpts of news articles have come up in other lawsuits, courts have not definitively resolved whether doing so constitutes fair use.
For its part, GateHouse argues in its court papers that a great deal of work goes into crafting the headlines and ledes. "GateHouse invests vast resources, including substantial amounts of time, money, effort, talent and creativity, in gathering local news from communities located in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts," the lawsuit alleges. "In order to maximize reader interest in any given story, GateHouse's editorial staff extracts certain distinctive features from the story, from which they prepare the headlines and ledes."
A lawsuit by Agence France Presse against Google News for aggregating headlines and posting excerpts of news articles posed similar questions, but that case settled before trial. Google also faced pushback by The Associated Press, but the two companies struck a licensing agreement.
Goldman also questioned the significance of GateHouse's claim that it attempted to block scraping by users coming from a Boston.com IP address, given that GateHouse's sites have RSS feeds. With those feeds, it appears that Boston.com could have gotten the GateHouse headlines and ledes directly from other aggregators.
Federal district court judge William Young denied GateHouse's request for a temporary restraining order against The New York Times Co. on procedural grounds, according to a report Tuesday in The Boston Globe. Young reportedly said he would consider GateHouse's request for a preliminary injunction against the company at a hearing scheduled for Jan. 5.