Copyright law evolved a great deal during the last quarter of the 20th century, but civil litigation continues in the 21st because the U.S. Code Title 17 allows much subjectivity about what constitutes an outsider’s “fair use” of a newspaper’s work. Generally, if you want the material for a business purpose, consider any newspaper editorial content off-limits for reproducing in whole without written consent. If you plan to do more than briefly excerpt the work, you're in a gray area. You will definitely need a lawyer, because the newspaper almost certainly has attorneys on staff or on retainer.
Say, for example, you own a restaurant and the three newspapers that cover your town each run positive reviews of your establishment. It’s certainly fair use to reproduce a brief quote from each – “Best prime rib in the city,” the Daily News says – on your website or in print advertisements. However, republishing the entire article could be trouble. The review as a whole is the intellectual property of the newspaper. The newspaper paid the writer to inform and entertain its readers, not to benefit your business.
On the other hand, if your business entails direct competition with the newspaper – you own a radio station, perhaps, or a website that covers news issues in the town – the U.S. Code considers not only how much content you’ve excerpted but the “effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.” In other words, whether you are using the newspaper’s unique content parasitically rather than employing journalists to produce your own unique content.
Content from large organizations such as The Associated Press may seem ubiquitous news reporting that appears, at least to an amateur, part of the public domain. Well, the AP is owned collectively by the nation’s daily newspapers, who still pay AP for it as well as contribute content. And the AP and other syndicates have litigated against aggregators that they believe cross the line on “fair use.” If you provide enough rewrite about the article in question that the reader has little reason to follow your link to the original provider, it can lead to civil and, with repeat offenses, even criminal litigation. Get a lawyer’s advice.
A ‘copyright article’
A newspaper might sometimes label a specific important article as, say, “Copyright 2012 by The Arizona Republic.” Actually, all the newspaper’s original material is protected by copyright law, but the copyright credit line makes the article stand out. The AP, as a newspaper collective, has the right to distribute news content from member papers. The copyright designation tells the AP and member newspapers that the originating newspaper must be credited with breaking the news, even if your news entity competes against it and is likewise an AP member.
In practice, newspapers seldom make a legal issue out of a one-time, innocent infringement. The newspaper’s lawyer will send a cease-and-desist letter if someone in that market crosses the line. Civil action usually occurs only when persistent, parasitic theft occurs or when the offender refuses to remedy the offense. But with more newspapers putting online content behind paywalls, expect them to defend their content more vigorously.
If you are considering testing the limits of "fair use," ask yourself if it is truly worth it. Journalists are prickly about having their content stolen, and having long memories is part of their skill sets. Even if you win the civil suit, if you’re a journalist with hope of becoming mainstream, frequent theft could hurt your career. If you are a business owner, it seldom hurts to stay on the good side of your region’s largest news organization, especially when a simple request often may get you what you want.
Robert Craig became a professional writer at age 16, and now edits for all sections of a large newspaper. His resume includes "The Miami Herald" and "New York Daily News." Craig attended Vassar College for one year and became a full-time sports writer at age 19.