the kicker

Gillmor on GateHouse

January 28, 2009

So the much-discussed GateHouse v. Times Company suit settled out of court earlier this week, and many media analysts met the news of the settlement with good riddance enthusiasm. Newspaper Death Watch’s Paul Gillin proclaimed a “Merciful End to a Pointless Lawsuit.” Jeff Jarvis’s headline was more succinct: “Gatehouse link stupidity reaches settlement.”

CJR’s Megan Garber spoke with the Citizen Media Law Project’s Dan Gillmor, who has been covering the GateHouse suit since it was filed in December, to get his quick reaction to the settlement.

Megan Garber: How do you interpret the text of the settlement?

Dan Gillmor: It looks like GateHouse basically prevailed in their argument, or at least in their settling of it. But I’d call it a Pyrrhic victory. I think Gatehouse was making a tremendous mistake in the suit, and though there’s no legal precedent that’s been set here, it’s just not good for the Web. Links are the glue of the Internet. It’s what this is all about.

MG: Jeff Jarvis called GateHouse’s suit “a dangerous and hypocritical crusade against linking.” Would you agree with that assessment?

DG: No, I wouldn’t. I don’t think it’s a crusade against links. I think it’s GateHouse wanting links, but only on their terms. Which, again, I think is a dramatic mistake.

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MG: So the distinction GateHouse made in its suit–between deep-linking that requires human oversight and the mechanized headline/lede scraping was doing–holds no water?

DG: Yeah. I think they’re mistaken to take that stance.

MG: In a blog post you wrote in December for the Citizen Media Law Project, you wrote, “If’s Your Town crawlers/scrapers are going around the technological blockades, that strikes me as — at the very least — poor behavior. I don’t know whether it’s legal, but it’s not honorable.”

Have you lost some of that initial sympathy for GateHouse as it’s pursued its case against the Times Company?

DG: I think they’re mistaken, but I certainly have some level of sympathy for them, too. It would be one thing to precisely replicate a page that itself consisted of links and first lines. In other words, if GateHouse or anyone else had their own page full of links and just copied it directly, that would be an interesting question. Is that fair use? I don’t know. I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t say. But I think the suit was unwise of them, and I think in the end it’s disturbing.

MG: Whatever one thinks of the suit, is it fair to see the GateHouse case, in broadest terms, as challenging the definition of intellectual property in a link economy?

DG: I think it’s too early for people to predict some sort of sweeping problem here. But [copyright] is certainly a concern. It would have been nice, at some level, if the Times had said, ‘Well, you’re idiots, but we’ll stop sending you traffic, if that’s what you really want.’ And that might have just ended that.

I don’t think they’re idiots, I just think they’re mistaken. Attacking links is just a mistake.

MG: Is there anything we can learn from the suit at this point, any takeaways?

DG: I’m hoping there are no takeaways. I’m hoping that this just disappears, and that no one tries this again.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.