Who Owns the News? Journalism and Intellectual Property in the Nineteenth Century

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 9:00 AM
Ontario Room (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Will Slauter, Université Paris 8
This paper explores how news became a form of private property in nineteenth century America. Combining approaches from legal history, journalism studies and history of the book, it considers changes in attitudes toward the authorship and copyright of news reports alongside changes in the way journalists worked with borrowed texts. By the 1840s, many newspaper editors were expressing concern about the plagiarism of news. Over the next several decades they continually policed each other in an attempt to establish shared protocols of acknowledgment that would guarantee the free circulation of news while maintaining a sense of propriety within the news business. It was the press associations that pursued a more aggressive legal strategy, arguing that news—the factual details of a report as well as its literary expression—could be owned. In the 1880s the Associated Press campaigned for a special copyright law for news, but they were widely opposed. While some complained that the AP was becoming a monopoly others argued that news did not have an author and therefore did not qualify for copyright. Many editors insisted that the unrestrained circulation of news was essential to American democracy. With public opinion against them, the AP pursued claims of unfair competition under common law. This move enabled them to bypass the issue of public interest. The question was no longer whether the news belonged to the public or to a private entity but whether a news organization had a right to protect its investment against a competitor. The common law doctrine of misappropriation, which recognized this right by defining news as a form of property, remains with us today. The doctrine has been upheld in recent cases involving the republication of news online, reigniting the old debate over who owns the news.
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