The internet contains so much content, and social media allows it all to be distributed so far and so fast, that the question of who owns exactly what content online, and the extent of that ownership, is constantly being debated.
Distractify and 22 Words are both sites that combine content from various sites and social media platforms and repurpose that content into articles that can be written up quickly and easily and disseminated throughout the internet. The result is what is commonly referred to as clickbait.
But now Distractify has sued 22 Words for allegedly violating its copyright at least 51 times. The examples provided in the complaint never involved a word-for-word copy of Distractify’s headlines or article content, but 22 Words did publish articles that contained the same ideas as previous Distractify articles, with similar headlines.
For example, 22 Words published an article about Anna Kendrick being a gift to the internet shortly after Distractify published an article about the times Anna Kendrick’s Twitter account made the year bearable. Each article contained 20 examples, though only five tweets were contained in both articles and the wording of the headline was slightly different.
So the question becomes whether Distractify can obtain (and defend) copyright on the idea for a particular story or article. Most legal experts are doubtful, especially since Distractify itself operates by repurposing content from other online sources. At least two photographers have sued Distractify for using their photos without payment or permission, and at least one writer has complained on social media that Distractify had stolen her posts without even bothering to significantly change the headline she had created.
It’s like the subject of this blog post: we first became aware of this lawsuit from The New York Times, which interviewed experts, looked at court documents, and wrote it all up in an article that was published in their newspaper and on their website. And while The New York Times certainly owns the rights their unique content, does that mean they own the rights to the whole story? Probably not, since accounts of the lawsuit have appeared in other publications, such as Variety. They’re all great articles and we are grateful to them for bringing the story to our attention, but that doesn’t mean we can’t write about it here and put our own perspective on it.
To go down that road would mean the first publication to put out a story would own all the rights to that story, no matter how many different takes on it there may be or how many different ways of framing the idea. Readers who wanted information on the latest story out of the White House would have to buy a copy of whichever publication owned the rights to that story because they wouldn’t have a chance to read about it anywhere else.
And while 22 Words does use headlines that are similar to Distractify’s headlines, legal experts are just as doubtful of the idea that short words and phrases (such as headlines) are subject to copyright law.
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