Judge rules news clipping service infringed Associated Press' copyright

Lilly Chapa | Content Regulation | News | March 22, 2013

Online news aggregation websites that compile and resell news stories without the publisher's permission are committing copyright infringement and are not protected under the fair use doctrine, a New York judge ruled.

In a 91-page opinion publicly released Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Denise Cote agreed with the Associated Press that the news aggregation website, Meltwater, infringed the wire service's copyright and could not claim it was protected by fair use when it sold excerpts of AP articles to its paying customers.

Fair use is a legal defense to copyright infringement that allows individuals to use portions of other's copyrighted material for their own creative uses. In some cases, courts have ruled that fair use protects infringement when the result is socially beneficial, such as Internet search engines.

Meltwater argued that it was acting as a search engine when it copied and compiled parts of AP's stories into its news clipping service, a position Cote rejected.

"Through its use of AP content and refusal to pay a licensing fee, Meltwater has obtained an unfair commercial advantage in the marketplace and directly harmed the creator of expressive content protected by the Copyright Act," Cote wrote.

Meltwater is a media-monitoring website that sends paying customers customized reports with excerpts -- including headlines and ledes -- of news articles found on the Web.

The decision emphasizes the value of the press in the Internet age, said Elizabeth McNamara, the AP's lawyer.

“I think the most important takeaway from the decision is that Meltwater and others for years have maintained that news that is freely available on the Internet can be freely taken and commercially sold,” McNamara said in an interview. “This decision rejected that argument and recognizes that Meltwater -- and presumably others -- can’t freeride on costly newsgathering.”

The court has yet to rule on another part of the AP’s lawsuit regarding hot news misappropriation, which recognizes that a news agency has property rights in the breaking news it publishes. Meltwater has filed a motion to dismiss the claim, McNamara said.

Meltwater CEO Jorn Lyseggen said in a statement that the company is planning on appealing the decision.

In a press release, AP declared the decision to be a “clear and sweeping victory for the Associated Press and for the public.”

“For years all of us have been hearing that if it is free on the Internet, it is free for the taking,” said AP president Gary Pruitt. “That's what Meltwater argued. The judge in this case just rejected that argument. We won on every single argument we made in the case. We are thrilled. This is first and foremost a victory for the public and for democracy.”

Six news organizations, including The New York Times and the Newspaper Association of America, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the AP.