News Misappropriation Still Lives

The District Court of the 9janews of New York has applied the doctrine of “hot news” misappropriation in the context of Internet based news headlines. The doctrine was considered by the court to deny a motion to dismiss Associated Press’ claim against All Headlines News, an Internet based news headline aggregation service. The decision is an interesting reminder of the existence of misappropriation in some US states as a separate, but similar, cause of action to breach of copyright.

Legal context The doctrine of hot news misappropriation was established as a type of unfair competition in 1918 by the US Supreme Court in International News Service v Associated Press. The doctrine serves to protect the ‘quasi-property’ rights of news-gathering organisations in breaking news – time-sensitive content that quickly loses value as it comes into the public realm. Since its origin, misappropriation has survived various changes to the ways in which Federal and State laws interact, albeit in a narrower niche (described in NBA v Motorola):

(1) a plaintiff generates or gathers information at a cost;

(2) the information is time-sensitive;

(3) a defendant’s use of the information constitutes free riding on the plaintiff’s efforts;

(4) the defendant is in direct competition with a product or service offered by the plaintiffs; and

(5) the ability of other parties to free-ride on the efforts of the plaintiff or others would so reduce the incentive to produce the product or service that its existence or quality would be substantially threatened.

Facts Being a pre-trial motion, the facts as pleaded by AP were assumed as being true and inferences were drawn in favour of the plaintiff. Having said that, many of the facts relevant to the “hot news” decision are relatively uncontroversial as relevant to application of the doctrine.

AP is a long established and well known news organisation. AP submitted that it goes to great effort and expense to report original news from around the globe. AHN in contrast is focused on providing news content feeds for paid subscription. AHN’s business was based (in part) on re-writing AP’s headlines for publication throughout its distribution network. One persuasive fact was that AHN didn’t undertake significant research themselves in creating the news stories.

Analysis The District Court confirmed that a cause of action for “hot news” misappropriation remains viable under New York law, and is not pre-empted by federal law, where the NBA test is met.

One key requirement to establish “hot news” misappropriation is that there be an element of “free-riding”. In most “hot news” cases (at least the ones which would cause so much concern as to get to court) the other requirements are almost taken as read.

The other key requirement is that the action be available in the relevant jurisdiction. On the facts of the case the District court found that New York law governed AP’s claim (being where the company is headquartered), but a different finding on this point could have made the “hot news” misappropriation.

An important point to remember is that in the context of this motion to dismiss, AP needed only establish that chances of success for its claim for relief (based on an assumption that the evidence pleaded in its complaint were true) are something above merely speculative and moving towards plausible. That being the case, the comments from the court are far from the last word on “hot news” misappropriation.

Practical significance It is important to consider other causes of action when reviewing circumstances which present as a possible copyright infringement.

The Court in this case and others has not provided significant guidance as to what constitutes a “free-ride”. This is of particular concern at the interface of “traditional” and “new network economy” business models, where one focuses on the value of information itself, whereas the latter assumes that information is freely available and the value comes from the service to provide and organise it.

Consider, for example, an Internet based news aggregator distributing news headlines in a searchable format from a number of other online services – is that a free-ride? Some might argue that the aggregator only exists because of the content. Others might argue that the innovation of the aggregating service is something to be encouraged, and given the development effort involved, shouldn’t be considered a free-ride.

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