Legal Hotline: Copyright 2020

Legal Hotline: Copyright 2020

PNA Legal Hotline

Q:  A locally run website has been taking content from our newspaper and re-printing it online without our permission.  Is there anything we can do about this?

A:  Original newspaper content is protected by copyright, and the newspaper has the right to pursue an infringement action as a result of unauthorized use of the work.

Copyright ownership is generally vested in the author of a creative work fixed in a tangible medium from the moment of creation. However, if an employee authors a work eligible for copyright and the work is created in the scope of his or her employment, the employer (the news organization) owns the copyright to that work.  Similarly, when copyrightable works are created by freelancers as part of a “work for hire” agreement with a news organization, the news organization owns the copyright. Registration of a copyright with the US Copyright Office is not required, although registration can increase the amount of damages awarded in an infringement action.

Copyright law grants the copyright owner the exclusive right to reproduce the work; prepare derivative works based on the copyrighted work; distribute the work to the public; and display the work publicly.  These rights can be individually sold, transferred or licensed to another by the copyright owner.

Use of a copyright-protected work without permission raises the issue of infringement. Infringement of a copyright occurs when any of the exclusive rights of a copyright owner are violated.

There are several defenses to copyright infringement including use of a copyrighted work for the purposes of criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research.  If appropriate, these uses may be considered “fair use” and thus exempt from infringement if it is reasonable and incidental.   The major inquiry undertaken by the courts is whether the infringer’s use has taken away from the copyright owner’s opportunity for profit.  If a court finds that the copied work is affecting the value of the original work, the usage will not be considered “fair use”.  Considering the website’s use and the potential negative affect on the newspaper’s value, fair use is likely not a valid defense in this situation.

If you believe that someone is improperly using your content, you should inform them about the alleged infringement, in writing, and instruct them to stop.  This type of notice is commonly referred to as a cease and desist letter.  A cease and desist letter can be sent by management at the news organization or the news organization’s lawyer.  Likewise, when an alleged copyright infringement appears online, federal law allows the copyright holder to submit a take-down demand under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, if the website has a registered take-down agent.  PNA encourages news organizations to consult an attorney before sending a cease and desist letter or DMCA take-down demand.

As always, this is not intended to be, nor should it be construed as, legal advice.  If a news organization suspects a copyright infringement, the news organization should contact its private attorney or the PNA Legal Hotline (717) 703-3080 for assistance.