A closely watched copyright-infringement lawsuit with important implications for schools, newspapers, and other organizations that aggregate news content from other sources on their web sites or in eMail newsletters ended in a settlement Jan. 26–leaving open, for now, the question of how much content news aggregators can post from stories they link to from other sites.
The settlement calls for GateHouse Media Inc. to put up technical barriers so that Boston.com can’t capture certain content from its web sites automatically. The agreement was announced the day GateHouse’s lawsuit was set to go to trial in U.S. District Court.
GateHouse sued The New York Times Co.–the parent company of the Boston Globe and Boston.com–last month, alleging the Globe’s new "Your Town" web sites used headlines and lead sentences from GateHouse’s "Wicked Local" sites without permission.
Neither GateHouse nor Boston.com paid damages or admitted any wrongdoing.
The settlement agreement did not specify the "technological solutions" that GateHouse will employ. But one common approach to ward off so-called "scraping" of content is to add a text file to the site instructing others to stay away or to scrape only certain sections. Major web sites generally honor such instructions, and the settlement requires Boston.com to do so.
"To be clear, we have always respected and honored those protocols before this litigation," said Bob Kempf, vice president of product and technology for Boston.com.
"If they put up a barrier, we will honor that barrier," he said.
The case was followed intensely by journalists and bloggers who said it could have far-reaching implications for determining how much content one web site can scrape from another.
"I am very glad that this has been handled the way it has been handled because, indeed, if a judge had to make some rules as to what’s permissible and what isn’t, that would inevitably have some effect on all of us," said Dan Kennedy, an assistant journalism professor at Northeastern University who has been blogging about the case on Media Nation.
In its lawsuit, GateHouse claimed Boston.com’s actions violated copyright and trademark laws. Besides publishing headlines and lead sentences, it said, Boston.com provided links that sent readers directly to "Wicked Local" stories.
That meant readers bypassed ads posted on GateHouse pages and could be confused as to the source of the original reporting, GateHouse claimed in its complaint.
GateHouse, based in Fairport, N.Y., owns 97 daily newspapers, 400 other publications, and 260 related web sites reaching more than 10 million people in 21 states. Its Massachusetts publications include the Patriot Ledger of Quincy, the Enterprise of Brockton, the Newton TAB, and the Daily News Tribune of Waltham.
Kirk Davis, president and chief operating officer of GateHouse Media Inc., said the company is pleased with the agreement.
"This is essentially providing us with all the relief that we wanted on the issues that brought us to this point in the first place," Davis said.
As part of the agreement, The New York Times Co. agreed to remove–by March 1–headlines and lead sentences from GateHouse stories that were previously posted on Boston.com sites.
Boston.com will still be able to "deep link" to individual GateHouse stories without presenting the links with headlines or lead sentences.
Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla., said the agreement does not settle the overall question of how much content news web sites can continue to post from stories they link to from other sites.
Many newspapers have "made their peace" with linking, because they know it brings traffic to their web sites, but he said that with the industry struggling to cut costs and come up with new revenue streams, "now people are saying, ‘Maybe we should revisit that.’"