Seems as though there’s still some life in the old “hot news doctrine” horse yet. The NY Times’s Media Decoder has a brief piece on a dispute between Hollywood news sites and The Hollywood Reporter set for a July 2013 court date.

In their joint report, the plaintiff — that would be Penske, owner of Deadline — said it was considering whether to augment its legal complaint with a new claim for “hot news misappropriation,” some of which “occurred as recently as the week of the filing of this Report.” In other words, Penske says the Hollywood Reporter was lifting its stories even as the year’s Oscar nominations were being chewed over.

The hot news doctrine has been getting a lot of play over the last couple of years, as the digital nature of the Internet makes it a lot easier for news sites to rewrite facts from other news sites’ stories. Generally speaking, facts cannot be copyrighted, only the expression of them. I couldn’t copyright the fact that Obama was elected President, for example, but I could copyright the exact words I used to talk about his election. Someone else would be perfectly free to read my report, digest the facts, and rewrite them in his own words. (In fact, that’s a lot of what I do for my TeleRead blogging, and what a lot of tech bloggers do in general. If courts were to enforce the hot news doctrine, it could significantly change the whole e-news-reading landscape!)

But the hot news doctrine was evolved as an exception during World War I to protect a news agency that made a significant investment in frontline reporting from getting scooped by competitors who intercepted its reports. The nature of journalism has changed significantly since then, however. And last year, an appeals court ruled in favor of a news rewriter, voiding an injunction that prevented it from republishing facts from a financial company’s news feed until two hours after their release.

It’s unclear how or whether and the Hollywood Reporter’s case differs from that one, but it would seem that relying on the hot news doctrine might be a risky venture. I suppose we’ll find out in fifteen months.


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