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A century-old legal doctrine could underpin a very 21st-century copyright dispute

This article has been corrected.

News Corp’s Dow Jones division is launching legal action against a London-based news service, in a case that could set an important precedent for the growing number of online news outlets that charge subscriptions to read.

Quartz has learned that Dow Jones, which publishes, among other titles, the Wall Street Journal and Barron’s, is taking action against Real-Time Analysis & News, Ltd.—otherwise known as Ransquawk.

Dow Jones recently launched DJX, an information portal whose subscribers get market-moving exclusives from the Wall Street Journal before the rest of the general public. It alleges that the UK-based firm, which operates a “squawk” service that broadcasts breaking news updates to its subscribers by audio and text, has been blasting out DJX’s exclusives to its users and “systematically copying” its work, within seconds of it being published on DJX.

In legal correspondence viewed by Quartz, Real Time News has denied the allegations, and says it obtains the news through its own sources on Twitter and within investment banks and brokerage houses. In the correspondence, it pledged to “vigorously defend” itself against any legal action.

In particular, the Dow Jones v Ransquawk case may test something called the “hot news misappropriation doctrine.” Originally established in 1918, the doctrine says publishers can prevent others from immediately republishing material that is time-sensitive, if republishing would mean the original publisher lost the ability to make a profit from it. Dow Jones won a settlement on the basis of that doctrine in 2010 against another website, Briefing.com, which agreed to pay an undisclosed “substantial” amount.

However, Dow Jones may have a harder time making its case this time around. In 2011, a group of investment banks failed to force the website flyonthewall.com to wait for a period before reporting on their research. One lawyer at the time said the ruling had “narrowed [the hot news doctrine] to within an inch of its life.” Media outlets welcomed that ruling—but as more of them put their own content behind paywalls, they may start to wish that their own news could be hot news.

Correction (Jan. 9): A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that the legal action launched by News Corp’s Dow Jones division could set an important precedent for copyright law. The lawsuit is a breach of contract and hot news misappropriation dispute, not a copyright dispute.

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