Newspapers & Copyright Laws

by David Carnes
Purchasing a newspaper doesn't make you the owner of its content.

Purchasing a newspaper doesn't make you the owner of its content.

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Copyright law protects works of authorship, including material printed in newspapers. Although there is no area of copyright law that applies specifically to newspapers, the unique features of newspaper publishing -- the corporate ownership of most newspapers, for example -- raise questions about how copyright law should be applied.

Scope of Protection

Copyright law protects the expression of ideas; not the ideas themselves. This concept raises difficulties in newspaper publishing, because newspaper articles are often highly fact-dependent, and facts cannot be copyrighted. The extent to which copyright protection applies to a newspaper article depends on the degree of original content. A list of baseball scores, for example, would not enjoy copyright protection. On the other hand, an editorial about the political situation in a particular country might contain enough original content to be protected under copyright law.

The Work for Hire Doctrine

The work for hire doctrine is an exception to copyright law that allows an employee to agree that the copyrights to works he creates belong to his employer. Since most newspapers are owned by companies, and since most newspaper employment contracts contain a "work for hire" clause, the copyright to a newspaper article typically belongs to the employer as soon as the article is written.

Copyright Registration for Newspapers

An unregistered work of authorship enjoys basic copyright protection that allows the copyright owner to receive infringement damages up to the amount that he can prove. If the work is registered, the copyright owner can receive statutory damages of up to $150,000 per act of infringement, as of 2012, without proving damages. Since many newspapers and other publications publish daily, the U.S. Copyright Office allows copyright owners to register groups of copyrighted works by filing a single application. If the work is registered within three months of first publication, the copyright owner can claim statutory damages even if the infringement occurred before the work was registered.

Expiration

The expiration of copyrights is governed by a complex set of laws that depend on many factors, including when the work was created and who the original copyright owner was. Generally, however, a copyright owned by a company under the work for hire doctrine expires either 95 years after it was first published or 120 years after it was created, whichever comes first. If the author's employment contract did not contain a work for hire clause, the copyright generally endures for 70 years after the author's death.