The litigious nature of Hollywood's trade press reached new heights this afternoon as the parent company of Nikki Finke's Deadline Hollywood, Penske Media Corporation, filed suit against Prometheus Global Media, the parent company of The Hollywood Reporter, for copyright infringement (the smoking gun is claimed to be some code in the HTML of THR's new website that Deadline says is copied from TVLine.com). What is it about the business of covering Tinseltown that inspires publications to resort to litigation at the drop of a hat? Is it the swaggering, take-no-prisoner personalities involved or an inevitable result of the intense competition in the industry?
The personality factor If there's anyone who deserves a reputation for fomenting lawsuits, it's Nikki Finke. In the run-up to today's suit, the editor-in-chief of Deadline Hollywood launched a public feud with The Hollywood Reporter on Friday in response to a letter from The Hollywood Reporter's lawyers accusing Finke of making a "concerted and unlawful attempt to disrupt THR’s business. In an effort to gain a competitive advantage for Deadline.com, Ms. Finke falsely has told THR advertisers and others in the Hollywood community that THR is experiencing financial problems [sic] will cause it to make massive layoffs, end its print edition and/or go out of business, or be sold by Prometheus.” In response to the letter, Finke drew out an outline of today's suit, which reasserts her claim that THR is in rocky financial shape and commands the publication's lawyers to "get the fuck out of my face."
Nice lady, huh? There's no way to talk about Hollywood trade litigation without talking about Finke's personal flair for threatening lawsuits. According to a report, when The New Yorker profiled her in 2009, she fought it the whole way through with "endless conversations and quarrelsome e-mails—some cc'd to attorneys" between her, the article's author Tad Friend and New Yorker editor Dave Remnick. When the largely complimentary article eventually came out, Finke danced in the end zone with a blog post saying "I found Tad Friend, who covers Hollywood from Brooklyn, easy to manipulate, as was David Remnick, whom I enjoyed bitchslapping throughout but especially during the very slipshod factchecking process."
In February, Finke again flexed her litigious muscles sending a cease and desist order to The Wrap's Sharon Waxman, alleging that it is "free-riding off of Deadline.com’s exclusive information and breaking news." The letter threatened future litigation, noting:
While we recognize that TheWrap News Inc. (WNI) is faced with the challenge of constant staff turnover, we strongly recommend that WNI take this problem seriously, investigate TheWrap.com’s journalistic practices, and establish guidelines, checks and balances that will hopefully prevent, not encourage, future infringement. If increased oversight is not successful, a more aggressive strategy may become necessary.
In all, the fight boiled down to grievances over a lack of attribution, which is not a Hollywood-specific issue—it's an issue effecting all new/old media coverage areas. Yet why all the litigation in Hollywood pubs? Waxman herself has sued over this very same issue, sending a cease and desist letter to the online aggregator Newser last year, which is founded by AdWeekMedia editorial director Michael Wolff, saying:
"We demand that Newser, LLC (“Newser”), and any agent or affiliate of Newser, immediately cease and desist using The Wrap as a source for Newser content. Newser is not following industry best practices, is intentionally misleading consumers/users at the expense of The Wrap and at the expense of other unnamed sources, and has effectually demonstrated no intention to allow consumers/users to logically and easily ascertain the source of Newser articles."
Sure, covering stars and the people who make movies is competive, but so is the business of covering technology companies or politics. Yet you don't see TechCrunch suing VentureBeat or Politico suing The Hill. Clearly, power players such as Finke get a certain gratification out of threatening litigation and find little shame in doing so.
But is the latest suit legitimate? To be fair, the latest dustup between Deadline Hollywood and The Hollywood Reporter could have some legitimate grievances at stake besides personal feuds. But it depends who you ask. One the suit's main claims is that Prometheus Global Media "egregiously and flagrantly stole integral source code and intellectual property from PMC’s www.tvline.com ('TVLine') website." According to the claim, THR copied code developed by Penske to build a "module" on its website. The suit says it's obvious because parts of the THR code contain references to MMC, which stands for Mail.com Media Corporation, the former name of Penkse Media Corporation. To Gawker's John Cook, "It's actually a fairly compelling argument." However, Josh Tyler at Cinema Blend, who says he's had experience with getting his own code stolen, is less convinced of the suit's merits:
They call it “copyright violation” but to me that seems like a pretty broad definition of the term... Anyone teaching web design will generally tell you the best way to learn it is to simply go and check out what others are doing. It’s even generally accepted practice among web designers to copy parts of code from other websites... I’m not talking proprietary, innovative, software or anything. Just generic html and CSS coding, which seems to be what Deadline is all up in arms about here.