Commentary

Federal Judge Wants To Copyright News

Yesterday at 5:20 p.m., the Web site TMZ.com reported that pop star Michael Jackson had died.

TMZ's scoop was soon picked up by every major media outlet -- online and otherwise -- in the country. But some industry watchers are floating a proposal to revise copyright law in a way that could prevent this type of news distribution in the future.

Earlier this week, influential federal appellate judge Richard Posner argued that the future of journalism might require an expansion of copyright law. Specifically, he proposed banning Web sites from accessing, linking to or even paraphrasing copyrighted material without the owner's consent (found via Techdirt.)

Posner's not the only one mulling this idea. Last month, the Washington Post ran a controversial column by lawyers Bruce Sanford and Bruce Brown that proposed similar ideas. Among other suggestions, Sanford and Brown recommended that search engines shouldn't be allowed to "crawl the Web and ingest everything in their path." The attorneys also suggested that Congress should act to ban "poaching," or one outlet "taking the guts of the content" originally published by another.

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These ideas by Posner, Sanford and Brown, while presented under the guise of saving journalism, seem far more likely to cripple it instead. Currently, no one can claim copyright in information -- a legal principle that enables reporters, bloggers, academics, and others to build on and add to the work of other writers. TMZ might have broken the Michael Jackson news, but other reporters from competing outlets followed up on it. Similarly, three years ago TechCrunch broke the news that Google purchased YouTube, but The Wall Street Journal and other publications soon followed with their own stories.

The prospect that one publication could have exclusive rights to publish facts it uncovered is also at odds with free speech principles. It's hard to imagine that any newspaper executives sincerely believe it's a good idea for one company to have licensing rights over facts it reports first. Rather than saving journalism, that sounds like a recipe for killing it off for good.

7 comments about "Federal Judge Wants To Copyright News".
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  1. Anne Anderson from Anne W. Anderson, June 26, 2009 at 4:07 p.m.

    Again, let's be careful not to confuse information--which cannot, of itself, be copyrighted--with the presentation of information--which involves, writing, creating images and graphics, and packaging information. The presentation of information is currently and must continue to be copyrighted. Just curious -- how are you paid?

  2. Casey Quinlan from Mighty Casey Media LLC, June 26, 2009 at 4:19 p.m.

    The baby - information - might get thrown out with the bathwater - how that information is packaged and delivered if the federal courts succeed in copyrighting the baby.

    Breaking a story doesn't mean you own the facts. I means you got the scoop. I think lifting large swaths of copy from the original text breaking said story deserves a wrist slap. Locking information behind "TMZ had it first, so they own it" sounds like the end of civilization as we know it.

    No, I'm not kidding...

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, June 26, 2009 at 5:03 p.m.

    "Own it" for how long? 2 hours, 2 days, forever? Owning information - how? Why even contemplate the absurdity of it? Even that which should be copyrighted and patented needs a limitation. Nothing better to do?

  4. Bill Loving from Journalism Department, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, June 26, 2009 at 5:38 p.m.

    It is well-settled law that piracy of news can lead to civil suits. In, International News v. Associated Press, a 1918 Supreme Court case, Justice Mahlon Pitney wrote, "A News article, as a literary production, is the subject of copyright." He also wrote that the facts, the information, was not subject to copyright restrictions.
    Anyone can report on the events. They can go out and independently do the reporting and writing.
    The question is, whether anyone can lift the story and benefit from that taking without compensating the people who rely on the reporting and publication of the news for their own incomes.
    If someone started selling this column on a Web site, would the author or publisher be satisifed with the knowledge that someone is helping to spread the ideas contained therein or would they say, "hold it, you are unfairly making money by taking my property and selling it."?

  5. Tupper White from hbw entertainment inc., June 26, 2009 at 5:47 p.m.

    ....and so ends free speech in America. How sad!

  6. Elliot Borin from Alchar, LLC, June 26, 2009 at 6:13 p.m.

    You can't copyright ideas, but you can -- and should be able to -- copyright content.

    So TMZ scooped the rest of the media on MJ's demise. Should they have been able, if they wanted, to invoke the copyright laws to prevent other sites from cloning the results of their investigative enterprise and ingenuity? Absolutely.

    No current or suggested law would prevent every other site or old media outlet to say that "TMZ.com reports Michael Jackson is dead." Beyond that, other media would -- and should -- have to go out and discover their own version of the facts.

    TMZ's exclusive work product, such as behind-the-scenes reports, interviews, etc. should be copyrightable and protected.

    Besides, pirating scoops isn't always such a great idea. What if the TMZ's report had been wrong. Instead of just that site being embarrassed thousands would have been.

    There is historical precedent ... United Press reported the end of World War II one-day prematurely. Thousands of their subscribers had to publish special editions later that day announcing that they were wrong and GIs were still fighting and being killed.

    Associated Press, on the other hand, did not get panicked into stealing UP's scoop and flashing it to their members. The result? A lot of happy editors at AP-served papers.

  7. Darren Davis from Artisan News Service, June 27, 2009 at 2:03 a.m.

    You can't copyright news. Text, yes; images, yes; but news itself should be protected. There are a lot of dirtbag "news" organizations out there that simply republish, and they should be sued for stealing. Any respectable journalist worth his salt knows to just follow the leads and knows who to call anyway.

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