You can’t copyright facts, but theft is theft

I told you earlier about Rupert Murdoch’s op-ed piece in his Wall Street Journal titled "Journalism and Freedom." Among other things Murdoch bemoaned the fact that aggregators, bloggers and others are constantly stealing information his publications and cable television networks spent time, money and enterprise to gather and disseminate.

Along comes a "fellow" at one of those cloistered academic "think" tanks to criticize Murdoch as a hypocrite. Sarah Hinchliff Pearson, right, a fellow at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, claims Murdoch "belittles the fair use doctrine and demands compensation for news content online, while going on to wax eloquent about the ideals of the Founding Fathers and the First Amendment. The problem is that the right he claims to value above all else, the freedom of speech, is precisely what prevents media companies like News Corp. from claiming ownership in the news. Facts cannot be owned, so while News Corp. can certainly prevent third parties from reproducing stories in full, it has no right to control the facts within those stories. This is not a peculiarity of copyright law; it is a protection of the First Amendment and an effort to create the informed citizenry Murdoch claims to cherish."

Not quite.

It reminds me of an old story told by survivors of the now-closed afternoon Fort Worth Press. The paper was limping along on a shoe string and could not afford such luxuries as Associated Press sports agate. So, every morning a staffer would purchase the rival Star-Telegram and copy portions of the baseball box scores. After complaining about this piracy to no avail, the folks at the Startlegram, as it was affectionately know by competitors over the years, hatched a plan.

For a brief period the newsroom prepared a special sports section and printed a handful of copies that were deposited in racks nearest the Press offices. The names of players would be changed slightly and perhaps humorously. I don’t recall specifics but the ruse was such that pitcher Warren Spahn might become Warren Spam or something of that ilk.

Yes, you can’t copyright a fact, but should the lazy be able to simply steal the hard work and investments of others for their own profit and/or amusement? Thus stealing value from the original? If someone spots a fact in another publication, then goes about the labors of obtaining that fact independently and reporting it in their own unique form, OK.

The principle became case law in 1918 when the AP sued International News Service for swiping its news content and simply rewriting it and selling it in competition with the AP.

Pearson concludes by calling Murdoch, left, a hypocrite: "It is truly sad that the institution that has historically defended and benefited from the First Amendment more than any other is now leading the charge against it. That’s not just irony; it’s hypocrisy."

The First Amendment gives freedom of speech and press, not freedom to wholesale confiscation of the labors of another.

By the way, I first stumbled upon Pearson’s blog at another blog, which reproduced her posting in its entirety.


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