Two national newspapers are reviving a longstanding industry battle with a suit against a site they accuse of misappropriating their copyrighted content.
In a federal lawsuit filed this week, the Los Angeles Times joined the Washington Post and its online subsidiary, Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, in alleging that a non-profit news discussion forum is copying and archiving their articles without permission.
The defendant, Freerepublic.com, links to, archives, and copies articles from outside news sources. It then uses the material as a basis for discussion amongst its readers.
"We are not complaining about having a link to our site, as long as he uses a trademark logo," said Rex Heinke, a partner with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which represents the three parties filing the suit. "We object to the copying and archiving."
However, Jim Robinson, who runs Freerepublic.com, says the issue is not about copyright protection.
"They are suing me because they don't like our opinions," said Robinson, referring to the conservative nature of the site's original material. "The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times are water carriers for the White House and for the government of the United States."
The complaint, filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court in the Central District of California, Los Angeles, calls for a court order to stop Freerepublic.com from copying and archiving (or storing) their online articles. It also asks for damages.
The papers filed the case to preserve the newspaper Web sites' revenues, said Heinke.
The Post and the Times initially allow free access to articles posted on their sites. However, after a period of time the articles are archived and the sites charge for access. By preserving content on its own server, Freerepublic.com diverts revenues from the rightful owners, Heinke claimed.
The newspapers also take issue with the mere copying of their articles, which they said drives down traffic and related advertising revenue potential.
"By copying [the articles], Freerepublic is diverting traffic from our Web sites," said Heinke. "We sell advertising on those Web sites, and the amount advertisers pay are a function of the traffic."
Robinson, however, claims a Constitutional right to post the stories. His Web site is merely a forum for discussing the news, he said, and stopping this practice would be a violation of the First Amendment.
Robinson also refuted the claim that his site was diverting traffic from the sites, explaining that his readers often link to the sources.
Copyright infringement is a oft-debated topic on the Internet, since the medium encourages content aggregation and providing links to outside sources broadens traffic and possible commerce. Many Web news services (including CNET News.com) and Web portals (such as Yahoo) link to other news services.
The lawsuit is not the first of its kind. Copying and distributing articles without proper attribution or permission spurred legal action in June 1997, when Web news site TotalNews was sued by a number of well-known news services, including the Washington Post, for displaying their articles within a TotalNews frame.
The suit ended with a settlement that included TotalNews' agreement not to display the newspapers' content in its own frame.