AP Enforcement Action Against Syndicator Survives Dismissal Motion–AP v. All Headline News

By Eric Goldman

Associated Press v. All Headline News Corp., 08 Civ 323 (SDNY Feb. 17, 2009)

We’ve seen a lot of ruffled feathers over Internet republication of news headlines, ledes and snippets–the most recent being the GateHouse lawsuit and settlement, but we can easily go back at least a dozen years to the old Shetland Times lawsuit to find similar issues. Some of the teeth gnashing is due in part to the ambiguity and paucity of directly applicable law, so any new judicial ruling, even an opinion on a motion to dismiss, is noteworthy.

According to the opinion (which is a little cryptic), All Headline News either rewrites AP stories or copies stories in full, strips out the source identification in some cases, and republishes its version of the stories to a network of paying customers. To the extent All Headline News is a syndication service of real-time news, it appears to be at least a partial competitor of AP. AP alleged a number of claims against All Headline News, and this ruling addresses All Headline News’ motion to dismiss the following complaints:

* Hot News. After concluding that All Headline News was subject to NY’s law, it held that a hot news claim was properly pled. This makes sense in light of both the original INS v. AP case from 1918 (which addressed a not-dissimilar set of facts) and the more recent 1997 2nd Circuit Motorola case, which held that sports scores might be protectable under a hot news doctrine. While we have not seen a lot of viable hot news claims in the past dozen years, the hot news doctrine remains important because it exists independent of copyright. Accordingly, the republication of headlines and ledes could be a hot news misappropriation even if it isn’t a copyright infringement. Because of the early procedural posture, the hot news claim might still fail, but the hot news doctrine’s survival of the motion to dismiss isn’t a favorable development for news aggregators and republishers.

* Copyright Management Information (17 USC 1202). We haven’t seen much action under this portion of the DMCA, which protects against the removal or modification of “copyright management information” (such as a byline) from copyrighted works. It hasn’t been extensively litigated, and the courts have interpreted the statute narrowly. Despite that, the court does not dismiss the claim. It will be interested to see if the AP can have any success with this claim given the narrow precedent supporting it.

* Trademark Infringement. The court dismisses the trademark infringement claim. The AP’s pleading of both CMI violations and trademark infringement points to an interesting conundrum for content publishers/aggregators. Remove the source attribution and you create a potential 1202 problem. Preserve the source attribution and you might be committing trademark infringement. The court overcomes the damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t situation by implying that citing your sources can’t be a trademark infringement.

* Unfair Competition. The court dismisses the 43(a) false advertising claims but preserves the common law unfair competition claim.

Implications. if, in fact, All Headline News is paraphrasing or plagiarising AP stories to operate a competing business, this is a materially different factual scenario than the aggregation and republication of headlines/ledes/snippets that has been the primary focus of Internet legal angst for the past few years. Nevertheless, revitalized doctrines of hot news and 1202 copyright management information both pose significant risks to these aggregation and republication activities independent of the copyright analysis. At minimum, this is a good reminder that focusing purely on copyright infringement claims misses other important considerations.

HT: Marty Schwimmer

UPDATE: Joe Mullin has some interesting things to say about the hot news doctrine and this lawsuit.

UPDATE 2: Jeff Neuburger’s comments.