No copyright in newspaper headlines

Australia’s federal court decided copyright doesn’t apply to newspaper headlines.

The decision strikes a blow against publishers wanting to hide content from non-paying online readers behind paywalls.

It came in a copyright claim made by Fairfax Media over headlines in its flagship business newspaper, The Australian Financial Review (AFR).  Disclosure: I spent seven years working as a freelance journalist for the AFR and a further two years as an associate publisher for its parent company.

Paywalls

Fairfax was looking to halt Reed International reproducing AFR headlines on news abstracts in its LexisNexis service – which incidentally, like the AFR, is also behind a paywall.

The AFR has operated a newspaper paywall long before the strategy became popular with newspaper publishers. For many years the AFR was derided for being out of touch with its paywall. Now everyone is in on the act, the case takes on more importance for the publishing industry.

Summaries substitute for articles

My old boss, chief executive Michael Gill went in to bat for the copyright claim. He said Reed intended its summaries to substitute for the articles and breached copyright by reproducing AFR headlines and by-lines.

The judge ruled otherwise saying Fairfax’s sample headlines were not literary works “in which copyright can subsist”.

She said Reed’s conduct was fair dealing and not copyright infringement.

Gill said Fairfax was considering appealing the decision.

Torn over copyright decision

As a journalist who has received an annual income from Australia’s Copyright Agency, I’m torn over the decision.

On the one hand, I feel publishers need protection from copyists who simply scrape data from the web, then repackage and sell it. Many of my stories from this site appear on other people’s sites – that makes me angry.

And well written headlines – the AFR employs some of the best sub-editors and many headlines are first-rate – provide readers with part of a story.

On the other hand, there’s always been an acceptance small works such as headlines, titles and advertising slogans are not protected. Now would not be a good time to start.