'David and Goliath' legal battle sees Rochdale Online win payout from Manchester Evening News over lifted news story

A local news website has won a legal payout from the Manchester Evening News over using one of its stories without payment or attribution.

The case appears to contradict an assertion from The Independent this week that “there is no copyright in news” after it used Wales Online as the sole source for a court report and declined to pay a fee to the freelance journalist who wrote it. It is practice known as ‘lifting’ in newspaper parlance.

The small claims court payout follows Rochdale Online publishing a news story headlined ‘Danczuk claims £500 on expenses for ‘crisis management’ over Christmas’ on 25 June 2016.

It was based on a Freedom of Information request submitted to the Parliamentary Standards Authority about former Rochdale MP Simon Danczuk.

Rochdale online chairman Malcolm Journeax told Press Gazette the story was then syndicated to The Sun.

Then, on 1 July, the Manchester Evening News published what he said was “in effect the same article without the permission of, or payment to, Rochdale Online”.

He said: “The MEN article did not include any citation or credit for the Rochdale Online research and the original article being that of Rochdale Online, it was in fact ‘passed off’ as the work of an MEN reporter.”

Journeaux said the article was then syndicated by the MEN to The Guardian, which altered its version of the story to include suitable attribution after being contacted by Rochdale Online.

Journeaux said: “Attempts by Rochdale Online to be paid by the MEN for the article were rebuffed, and legal proceedings were initiated via the small claims court.

“The MEN defence was ‘there is no copyright in news’ and as the article was not copied ‘verbatim’ there was therefore no copying and hence no breach of copyright.

“Rochdale Online did not claim the MEN copied the article verbatim – it would be a very foolish reporter who did so – rather the key points of the Rochdale Online original were used to write an article that mimics the original Rochdale Online article without permission.

“It was Rochdale Online’s contention that its article had sufficient originality to be protected by copyright, as Section 16 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 says there is an infringement of copyright if the whole or ‘ANY substantial part’ of a work is copied.

“Using the ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’ test, there can be no doubt that an ordinary and reasonable person would consider the MEN article to be a copy of the original Rochdale Online article.”

On 29 June Manchester County Court ordered MEN Media to pay Rochdale Online £200 plus £170 court fees.

Journeaux said: “If the MEN defence had succeeded, and the ‘sweat of the brow’ involved in researching and writing articles therefore could not be protected, there would be no syndication market, anyone could and would have carte blanche to lift and reword what they pleased when they pleased.

“The ongoing future contribution of local news rests on its ability to continue to successfully monetise its content to fund already endangered local news gathering. If the ‘Goliaths’ of the industry are allowed to ‘smite’ the Davids by simply helping themselves to the painstaking research carried out by the Davids there will soon be no Davids left, local journalism would all but cease to exist.”

Manchester Evening News publisher Trinity Mirror, which is the UK’s largest local newspaper publisher, declined to comment.