High Court ruling implies headlines are copyright – we're one step away from links

The UK’s High Court has ruled that news monitoring agencies will have to pay publishing companies to use their web content, effectively re-classifying headlines as separate literary works subject to copyright.

The moves follows a legal battle between the Newspaper Licensing Agency, owned by eight of the UK’s largest newspaper groups, and Meltwater, a news monitoring agency. Although cutting agencies like Meltwater pay the NLA a fee for reproducing full-length articles, this case was supposed to clarify the limits of the NLA’s licensing scheme. Meltwater didn’t like its clients needing to have a licence from the NLA for the use of mere headlines and short extracts from its service. Instead the case has ruled that similar aggregation sites that charge for a service will have to pay for those headlines.

Meltwater plans to appeal against the decision, but if it’s upheld, you can expect a wave of more legal actions. And thus the fabric of the UK’s online publishing industry will start to break down. Well done High Court.

Technically, that won’t affect blogs or search sites since they don’t charge. But it’s not far away from some publishers claiming that because those links are monetised in some other way, that they can charge for their use since the headlines and, therefore the links to those, are copyright.

Meltwater makes the point that the ruling will mean that “simply browsing copyright-protected content made freely available on the internet will infringe copyright if it is read without a rightsholder licence.” Quite.

Needless to say the NLA is very happy as the total UK market for online news monitoring is worth around £10 million and “publishers should earn a fair share of revenues from paid-for monitoring.” This is all they are arguing over? A measly £10m? How pathetic. It shows how desparate some newspaper publishers are.

I hope the courts see sense in this.