Agency says HuffPo story payout sets precedent

The website Huffington Post has made a payment to a news agency which accused it of using stories without credit or consent.

Vienna-headquartered Central European News (CEN) invoiced HuffPo after discovering it had covered two stories which CEN had originally sold to other news outlets.

One of the stories related to the former Playboy model Nives Celsius signing with a Croation soccer team, which was sold to both the Daily Mail and the Croation Times, for which both papers were invoiced.

The other related to a story about a UK pop singer which was again sold to the Daily Mail - and which was later the subject of a legal dispute.

HuffPo covered both stories, linking to the original articles, but according to CEN this meant it had used the agency's copy without credit or consent.

It invoiced parent company AOL for both stories succcessfully demanding $160 for both stories. The charges were $80 for using each story without credit, and $80 for using them without consent.

Michael Leidig, the founder and owner of Central European News, said: "I urge other freelancers and agencies to copy CEN's lead and also send the Huffington Post invoices.

'They seem to think that because they take the hard work of the real news community and shuffle the worlds around, that they are somehow in the news business.

"They can huff and puff all they like as long as they pay – maybe then they'll appreciate fully the tough economic world we all have to live in."

Leidig took legal advice from media lawyer Bill Lister, who leads the the law firm Pannone's intellectual property and media team.

'If the story has been done completely differently there can still be a copyright claim if you can show the story has been taken as a starting point and altered,'he told Press Gazette.

Lister cited the recent High Court case of the National Licensing Agency v Meltwater, which he said showed that, when it comes to copyright infringement of newspaper articles, the test is the quality of the extract not the quantity.

Lister said the case meant that just 11 copied words could potentially constitute a copyright infringement.

'If a story is copied word-for-word or nearly word-for-word then that's an obvious breach of copyright,'said Lister.

Even if the story was altered, but it could still be proved that Huffington Post could only have got the story from the original CEN source, he argued, then that also constituted a breach of copyright.

The burden of proof in such a case would rest on HuffPo and not CEN, he said.

Leidig has also received support from the National Association of Press Agencies (NAPA).

Executive officer Chris Johnson told Press Gazette that Leidig's claim was 'a familiar theme".

'Mike and CEN have put down an important marker with this action,'he said.

'What Mike is doing is applying the law – the material and the copyright is his. Somebody at Huffington Post saw the story and thought, ‘We'll do that'. But it was a breach of copyright and they've now paid up.

'They should ask themselves, ‘Who owns the copyright to this and can we buy it and reproduce it?' That culture needs to be encouraged.'

Johnson is concerned there exists a culture within online journalism in which people believe that 'words cost nothing".

'They're happy to pay for pictures but want to believe that words have no value,'he said. 'We are here to tell them that they do. I think we will see more and more actions of this nature."

UPDATE 11.05am 21/10/11

AOL' communications VP Mario Ruiz said the payment of the invoices was a "paperwork error, not a change in policy".

"When we aggregate or curate copy, we do so within the bounds of copyright law and acceptable fair use, and respect the intellectual property rights of others," he said.

'In the case of the specific invoices in question, it appears that these invoices from CEN, an established photo licensing vendor in our system, involved a standard photo license fee, and were treated as we treat standard photo license invoices.

'A staff employee, who is responsible for processing upwards of a thousand photo license fee invoices per year from hundreds of vendors, treated these invoices as standard license fee invoices and mistakenly overlooked the nonstandard additional language in these CEN invoices. Invoices including this language will not be paid in the future."

 

MORE ON THIS STORY : 

Sign up for our free weekly digital magazine, Press Gazette Journalism Weekly, and daily newsletter
To contact Press Gazette with a story call 0207 936 6433
or email pged@pressgazette.co.uk
To advertise, please call 0207 936 6764.