A rivalry between publishers can energize each organization to work even harder to provide the best coverage for a story possible and if the public’s imagination is captured, it could conceivably boost both parties’ circulation. (Even radio comics Jack Benny and Fred Allen, good friends in real life, knew the value of this and played up an imaginary feud between them that boosted both their shows’ ratings.) Sometimes those rivalries can get heated, as was the case with the famous rivalry between Hollywood gossip columnists Heddy Harper and Louella Parsons.
But I can’t seem to recall a level of acrimony that has culminated in a lawsuit similar to the suit that Nikkie Finke’s Deadline Hollywood filed against the Hollywood Reporter earlier this week.
To summarize – Deadline‘s parent company, Penske Media Corp., filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against the Hollywood Reporter claiming that the venerable trade paper was “stealing” its scoops and posting them on their website as their own sometimes mere minutes after they went live on the Deadline site. The complaint also alleged further copyright infringement in that bits of Deadline‘s website code had been copied and used in the Reporter‘s own web design. There are also allegations that the Hollywood Reporter had tried to hire staff away from Deadline.
The Hollywood Reporter responded by stating that a majority of the news stories that Deadline cites in the complaint as “stolen” are in fact press releases that were sent out to a number of outlets and are not quite the exclusives that Finke would like you to think they are. In a statement, the Hollywood Reporter said –
An initial review of the complaint shows that it is replete with examples of stories that originated from widely-released press releases from publicists, or widespread confirmations from publicists to numerous outlets, including both The Hollywood Reporter and Deadline.com. It is not copyright infringement to report these stories, even if on occasion Deadline.com posts them first.
As for the possibility of some of Deadline‘s website code having been lifted for use on the Reporter‘s own site, they stated that they received the code from an outside vendor. They also immediately removed the feature under question “while we look into the matter.”
And as for the lawsuit’s assertion that the Hollywood Reporter has attempted to hire away some of Deadline’s staff is, at best, laughable. The Reporter flat out denies the accusation, but even if they were doing it, so what? Not only is it not illegal to try and headhunt employees from a rival organization, but Finke herself has done it! In March 2010, Deadline announced the hiring of former HR reporter Nellie Andreeva to lead up their television coverage and former Variety staffer Mike Fleming to be the site’s New York reporter. Recluses in glasses houses should not throw stones.
It would seem that Finke’s lawyers know that a portion of their suit may lack the merit needed to win, as their claim for $5 million in damages is linked to the alleged infringement of the website source code than it is to any of the actual news content on the site. I think that the judgement on this will actually boil down to whether or not the Hollywood Reporter can be held liable for the actions of the third-party vendor who supplied the code to them.
Even though Finke is claiming to be the aggrieved here, it is hard to find any sympathy for her. To say that her on-line persona is a bit erratic would be putting it kindly. She tries to come off as a no-nonsense, gruff, hold-no-bars type of reporter. But very frequently she comes off as a mean-spirited bully who plays favorites, inflating minor misfortunes of those she disfavors and ignoring bad stories about those she likes. She’s not above sending angry emails or making a shrieking phone call to someone she feels has slighted. I’ve seen it time and again, and it never feels to impress me with how unprofessional she comes across.
But even removing her personality from the equation, there are still reasons to question the ethics of how Finke has run Deadline over the years. Over the life of her site, it has been proven that she has more than once gone back and retro-actively altered posts. Not just to correct a slight spelling or grammatical error but to remove erroneous reporting or to make it appear as if she had a scoop all along.
PMC’s lawyers have an uphill battle if they need to portray Finke in any kind of sympathetic light.
The Hollywood Reporter’s statement ends with the intimation that Deadline’s lawsuit is meritless and has only been filed as a way to draw attention away from their growing online presence. Currently, according to Alexa.com, the Reporter has a worldwide traffic ranking of 1,989 and a ranking of 611 in the United States, compared to Deadline’s 4,228 worldwide/1,092 US ranks. But a look at traffic estimates over the last three months shows that both sites’ reach has dropped a little over 6%. No matter what the legal outcome of the lawsuit will be, perhaps both sides will win from any additional interest in their sites that this will generate.