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Why Nikki Finke’s Content Theft Lawsuit Is Interesting, If Still Batty

Finke is attempting something that is almost certainly impossible: Stopping reporters from picking up the phone and confirming news that her site has published

Nikki Finke’s lawsuit today against The Hollywood Reporter addresses a long-standing frustration of hers that she could do little about — until now.

For what seems like forever Finke has accused all and sundry — including this site — of stealing her content. By “stealing” she apparently meant “writing” about things about which she or her reporters have written.

Here’s the problem: any website can follow news that is broken on a given site, change a few words, and publish it.

THR aside, that it is the way of the web. Countless sites pick up news that has been gathered by sites that do original reporting — including TheWrap and Deadline — and cut and paste.

I’m not saying it’s not a problem. It is.

But the stories cited by the lawsuit are entirely unconvincing: garden variety deals, sales and executive changes — Paramount moves the release date of a movie, Fox buys a dramedy, Universal names a new head of drama — that are easily confirmed by a phone call to a company spokesman or agent.

Also read: Suedja! Nikki Finke Sues The Hollywood Reporter

Then it’s not theft, then it’s original reporting. In many cases they are stories that would have been confirmed in press releases.

That’s what makes this case interesting. Finke has obviously decided to take her crusade to the court, although there is not a single case cited in the complaint to support the argument of intellectual property theft.

Breaking news is a big problem.

Finke and Penske are alleging that THR’s fast-follower news gathering is building a business off of Deadline’s work.

Also read: Nikki Finke to THR: ‘Get the F— Out of My Face’

“It has become abundantly clear that part of THR’s turnaround strategy was to engage in an unprecedented campaign of theft and misappropriation of PMC’s intellectual property and content to accomplish” a turn back to trade advertising, reads the lawsuit.

Readers of this space will remember that Finke threatened to sue TheWrap back in February alleging some similar claims of content theft. At the time we responded that the claim was spurious because it was. And every lawyer we talked to said that Deadline had no case.

Also read: TheWrap’s Counsel Bert Fields Responds to Nikki Finke 

Apparently Penske found a more appealing legal target.

Also significantly, Deadline lays itself open to charges of hypocrisy, since Finke never cites or links to competitors like TheWrap when following a story exclusive or news break.

In the case of THR, the trade does not appear to cite those who break news that they follow. (I found one exception, which followed my complaint to THR after TheWrap broke the news that publicist Ronni Chasen was killed by a stolen police revolver, and police declared the case closed. And, shocker: Deadline did not cite TheWrap when following the story the next morning.)

The real question is: What’s new here?

Reporters follow one another’s stories in an age-old race to be first and have a complete report. The New York Times matches the Wall Street Journal story. AP has to match the Reuters news break. If this were litigate-able, Variety and the old THR could have sued one another on a daily basis for decades.

The change with the Internet is the speed by which one news story can be duplicated, and the ability to cut and paste.

To my mind, Finke is attempting something that is almost certainly impossible: Stopping reporters from picking up the phone and confirming news that her site has published. Indeed, she and her reporters do the same, despite protestations to the contrary.

The source code argument may have a stronger leg to stand on, since it appears that programmers of the new THR website were “so incompetent and careless,” as the lawsuit states, that they left the source code labels “MMC,” the previous name of Penske’s organization.

Incidentally, THR paid $2 million to Avenue A Razorfish to completely redesign the site a year ago, according to my sources. They should ask for their money back. And now it sounds like they’re gonna need it.