Newspaper Obituaries Aren’t Hot News–Scranton Times v. Wilkes-Barre Publishing

By Eric Goldman

The Scranton Times, LP v. Wilkes-Barre Publishing Co., 3:08-cv-02135-ARC (M.D. Pa. March 6, 2009)

Oh man, how bad is it in the newspaper business? Rather than investing in building new and sustainable business models and relationships with their subscribers, newspapers are like dinosaurs trying to eat each other while the temperature rises. However, instead of eating each other, the dinosaurs are suing each other, squandering their valuable capital on low-merit newspaper v. newspaper lawsuits, such as the GateHouse v. NYT lawsuit over the republication of headlines.

Today’s lawsuit is even more scoffable. The Scranton Times is suing the Wilkes-Barre newspaper for republishing obituary notices in its Scranton edition that were initially published in the Scranton Times. But the Scranton Times has a problem–funeral homes typically write and submit the obituary notices, so the Scranton Times has no copyright interest in the notices. Undeterred, the Scranton Times sued the Wilkes-Barre paper for a bunch of junky unfair competition-style claims in Pennsylvania state court.

This ruling deals with the Wilkes-Barre defendant trying to remove the case to federal court by showing that there is a federal question of whether the junky claims are preempted by federal copyright law.

The most interesting discussion relates to the hot news misappropriation doctrine. I just discussed the doctrine last month in the AP v. All Headlines News case, where the SDNY said that the AP’s hot news claim against an online aggregator/syndicator survived a motion to dismiss. I’ve seen some breathy law firm announcements that this ruling revitalized the hot news doctrine, but not so fast, guys. Here, the court says that the obituary notices fail to qualify as hot news, and therefore the misappropriation claim is preempted by copyright law.

In particular, the court says that obituary notices can qualify as time-sensitive information, such as timing of memorial services. Further, even though the newspaper doesn’t write the obituary notices, the court says that the newspaper bore all of the costs of collecting and distributing the notices, and the rival paper free-rode on those investments. However, the court said that the Scranton Times had failed to show that the free-riding would threaten the Scranton Times’ publication of obituary notices. Thus, the hot news claim failed.

The court looks at the copyright preemption of other junky unfair competition claims, holding that the unfair competition claim was really a reverse passing off claim, which was preempted, as was the tortious interference and unjust enrichment claims. Oddly, the court said that the conversion claim wasn’t preempted by copyright law, even though the only “converted” assets would be copyrighted intangible material (the obituary notices).

So a few of the junky claims survive the copyright preemption analysis, but there isn’t much hope for this lawsuit. Then again, unless the Scranton Times realizes that fighting a rear-guard action against its competition does nothing to improve its future business prospects in a market disintegrating around it, there isn’t much hope for the paper either.

HT: Tom O’Toole