California celebrity media groups settle “hot news” dispute

Two California news organizations go after the same story. The mad dash for facts is motivated by a desire to “break” the news as quickly as possible. Another incentive is increased viewer or reader credibility which translates to revenue growth.

What if one news group steps on the other’s toes, duplicating news material while racing to air or print the story? Is that copyright infringement? According to the “hot news doctrine,” the answer is maybe. Intellectual property laws say some parts of a news story are copyright protected while others are not. Word-for-word theft of content is a violation but, even then, legal exceptions still exist.

Take the case of two Los Angeles competitors, each dependent upon late-breaking news about Hollywood celebrities. The Hollywood Reporter recently settled out of court with the owners of Variety and Deadline Hollywood over alleged intellectual property theft.

Penske Media Corporation wanted $5 million for damages from Prometheus Global Media, the parent of The Hollywood Reporter. Reports said the settlement came to a fraction of the requested amount — a little more than $162,000. Why?

PMC said The Hollywood Reporter blatantly harvested computer source code, complete articles, parts of stories, designs and software particularly from TVline.com. Prometheus officials admitted they were guilty, but not directly. The “error” was blamed on a third-party consultant. Prometheus said it acted promptly to delete the disputed material after Penske complained. An apology was issued.

The copyright lawsuit dragged on for more than a year, reportedly due to the hot news doctrine. According to applicable federal law, the “expression” of ideas and opinions can be copyrighted, but facts and events are common ground without copyright protection. Translation — stories may be copyrighted, but unoriginal content falls outside intellectual property law.

PMC officials intend to keep an eye on The Hollywood Reporter’s future practices. Companies often hire intellectual property attorneys to do just that — monitor rivals for infringement.

Source: businessinsider.com, “The Hollywood Reporter Admits It Stole Code From Rival,” Lucas Shaw, April 1, 2013