High Court rules newspapers can charge for links

The UK's High Court has ruled that online newspaper headlines are protected by copyright, and that others must pay to use them.

Mrs Justice Proudman this morning ruled that users who paid aggregator service Meltwater News to receive online newspaper content via the company's news monitoring serve were in breach of copyright if they did so without a licence.

The decision marks the first time that UK courts have declared that copyright can subsist in a newspaper headline.

The judgment is the latest round in a long-running battle between Meltwater and the Newspaper Licensing Association (NLA), an organisation created by the UK's eight national newspaper groups to license online newspaper content.

At the beginning of 2010 the NLA, which represents more than 1,400 UK titles, introduced a system of paid licences to allow users to copy or distribute news content.

22 news aggregator services, along a number of press cuttings agencies and PR companies, signed up to the agreements.

Meltwater News refused, objecting to fees of up to £10,000 for the right to use headlines, links and short extracts from online stories.

In May, the NLA sought a ruling from the courts as to whether users of aggregator services such as Meltwater's could receive, copy and distribute such content without a licence.

Today's decision suggests that copyright can be applied to aggregated news headlines - and that any business seeking to aggregate, copy or re-distribute them must cough up the cash.

Welcoming today's decision, the NLA's managing director David Pugh said in a statement: "We welcome today's ruling from the High Court and are pleased that the Court recognises that newspaper publishers' web content is protected by copyright law. We hope this ruling will help ensure a fair share of web monitoring revenue for publishers and a fair media monitoring market."

Meltwater condemned the judgment as "a wrong interpretation of the law", and declared that it "undermines the basic principles of the operation and use of the Internet".

The decision marks a major turning point in the protection of internet content by UK copyright law.

The fight is by no means over, however, with Mrs Justice Proudman granting Meltwater leave to appeal the High Court's decision.

The NLA is waiting for a second ruling in February 2011, this time from the Copyright Tribunal, on the commercial aspects of the licences.