Is Creating A Fake News Story Libel Or Copyright Infringement?

from the seems-a-bit-questionable dept

Creating fake news stories has a long history on the web. People do it all the time, usually for fun as something of a hoax. Many of these stories pretend to be from respected news publications — but to anyone beyond the most casual observer, it should be obvious that they’re fakes, based on the fact that they’re not hosted on the actual publications’ website. However, that’s apparently not enough for some. Romenesko points out that the Oklahoma Publishing Company (publishers of The Oklahoman) and sports writer Jake Trotter are suing a guy who wrote up a fake article (using Trotter’s byline) and posted it on his own website. The news report covering this is in the Oklahoman’s own paper, so it doesn’t share the guy’s side. However, a look around various blogs shows what you’d expect: he did it as a silly hoax because he’s a fan of Nebraska’s football team over Oklahoma’s. So he created a silly fake news story about some Oklahoma players. Yes, it was stupid, but sports fans do plenty of stupid things against opposing teams.

There isn’t any indication that anyone actually believed this fake story was true. It was only posted on a site whose domain was clearly someone rooting for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, rather than on the Oklahoman’s actual website. It’s difficult to see what sort of “damages” this story could have had on anyone. Yes, it was a stupid hoax stunt from an overly passionate fan, but suing him for libel, copyright infringement and trademark infringement seems like an even bigger overreaction in response.

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Comments on “Is Creating A Fake News Story Libel Or Copyright Infringement?”

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19 Comments
Joel Coehoorn says:

Everyone a publisher

A common theme here is that we’re no longer subject to the old model where there are few publishers and many consumers. Now anyone can be a publisher, and in an era where anyone can be a publisher, many things that were based on a system with only a few publishers don’t make sense.

Now we see it again. In an era where anyone can be a publisher, anyone can now also take on the risks associated with that role. This kind of lawsuit, whether it makes sense for the plaintiff or not, is one of those risks.

In this specific case, you might be able to come up with an obvious legislative or legal change that will solve the issue in the future. In the general case, this presents a difficult problem to solve. Being a publisher can expose you to risks that can’t simply be legislated away. For example, you could publish something that hurts your reputation, or make someone angry enough to break the law.

Under the old system, the few publishers typically had enough resources to defend against many of the smaller finacial risks, or take out insurance to help absorb some larger ones. With the new system, this isn’t always the case. A single serious lawsuit could bankrupt anyone before they have a chance to have it dismissed. Additionally, many new ‘publishers’ are ill-equipped to even fully evaluate what the risks are.

Bill says:

fake news stories

Jeeezzz – The Onion is gonna be in big trouble if this lawsuit is a winner. Colbert & the rest of them too. And what about the satirical stories on SportsLine (eg, the Boone family story)? Newspapers (& the ‘MSM’ in general) are already in enough trouble — is crap like this gonna help ‘fortify’ their reps & stop the financial bleeding? I’d bet against that happening.

Sam P. says:

Get some legal consultants.

I really wish that Techdirt would get some competent legal advice before dealing with legal stories. Every post I have read here that deals with some legal issue has had at least one moderate or major error in the law. It really ruins the reputation of your site when you post things about which you are not competent to discuss.

cram says:

bad taste

This was no satire. This was plain misinformation, defamatory and damaging, at that.

I can’t see how such behavior can be condoned, by any yardstick. Stupidity alone can’t be a reason to seek pardon. Sometimes it needs to be punished. In this case, most certainly so.

And this joker has even gone one step ahead by assuming another man’s identity. I simply cannot see why this should be treated lightly and not be brought up before a court of law.

IMHO, this was not an overreaction at all. People ought to realize that they cannot get away with anything simply because the Net offers the advantage of anonymity.

corn blight (user link) says:

More

Well, as a Nebraska alum and the guy who runs the Husker site Corn Nation, it’s my understanding that the newspaper had to sue to protect their copyright, since their logo was used in the farce.

And actually, someone did notice the story and report it as true. Radio stations in Texas reported the incident as fact. Now, you have to understand that Texas and Oklahoma are huge rivals and it’s a nasty rivalry, so no doubt the Texas stations were more than happy to report the story as fact.

What I find interesting is that the radio stations aren’t being sued for getting it wrong, as if there is no responsibility on their part. I’m no lawyer, but I’m guessing that’s because they are more capable of mounting a defense than some guy that runs his own web site.

Anonymous Coward says:

man you guys. It’s one thing for something to be satire. It’s another thing entirely to make up a fake story and append a real newspaper and real reporter’s name to it. Imagine for a minute I decided to create a hoax where I claimed I was Mike, the guy who runs Techdirt. Then I went around to a bunch of kiddie porn sites asking for stuff. That would be wrong. It would be defamation.

The Daily Oklahoman sports writer almost certainly has a pro-OK slant to his stories. To write a pro-Nebraska story using his name sullies his reputation. If people thought this was real, there would almost certainly be some who demand he be fired from the paper.

Creating a hoax site/story is one thing. Making it look like a real-live writer wrote it is another.

Mel (profile) says:

Gaylord Family - Huge OU Money supporters

It probably didn’t help that the Oklahoman’s owners, the Gaylord family, have donated huge sums to OU … and even managed to get the stadium renamed “Gaylord Family Memorial Stadium” (when it used to just be “Memorial Stadium” in honor of Oklahoma’s war dead).

As a huge OU fan myself, I think it’s funny as hell (the satire that is, not the Gaylord’s thin skin).

Anonymous Coward says:

Coming from the North to attend OU, I was amazed at the perhaps zealous nature of OU fans. Everything in Oklahoma is centered around sports, whether from OU, OSU, or TU. So it is not difficult at all to see the newspaper, which is so heavily tied to OU, be in a tissy.

On another note, that newspaper is one of the absolute worst. The errors and blatant bias in the reporting make it worth nothing more than doggy doo doo paper; except the paper is so thin it is barely useful for that either.

Maybe if the Gaylord family gives more money, OU will name the football team to the OU Gay Lords.

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