The Supreme Court, in a setback for news organizations, ruled today that a magazine violated copyright law in scooping former President Gerald R. Ford on his own account of his pardon of Richard M. Nixon in the wake of Watergate.
By a 6-3 vote, the court reinstated a $12,500 copyright infringement award against the Nation magazine and in favor of Harper & Row and the Reader's Digest Assn., owners of publication rights to Ford's memoirs.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, writing for the court, said the Nation, in scooping the book publishers in 1979, violated copyright law by printing key excerpts from Ford's manuscript.
"The Nation did not stop at isolated phrases and instead excerpted subjective descriptions and portraits of public figures whose power lies in the author's individualized expression," O'Connor said. "Such use, focusing on the most expressive elements of the work, exceeds that necessary to disseminate the facts."
'Beyond Simply Reporting'
The court rejected arguments by the Nation that the article was "news reporting" and therefore under the Constitution's protection of free speech should be given broad protection against copyright restrictions.
O'Connor said: "The Nation has every right to seek to be the first to publish information. But the Nation went beyond simply reporting uncopyrightable information and actively sought to exploit the headline value of its (copyright) infringement, making a 'news event' out of its unauthorized first publication of a noted figure's copyrighted expression."
Justice William J. Brennan, in a dissenting opinion, said, "The progress of arts and sciences and the robust public debate essential to an enlightened citizenry are ill-served by (the court's) constricted reading of the fair-use doctrine."
The book publishers said that nearly 2,000 words in the article were either copied from the manuscript or closely paraphrased Ford's writing.
2 Weeks Before Publication
The Nation printed its article on the Ford book, "A Time to Heal," just two weeks before the memoirs were to be published.
Because of the article, the book publishers lost $12,500 of the $25,000 that Time magazine had agreed to pay for running pre-publication excerpts from the book.
A federal judge ordered the Nation to pay the $12,500 for violating the book's copyright, but the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in 1983 overturned the judge's ruling.
Also today, the justices agreed to decide whether states can require doctors to do all in their power to keep fetuses alive when performing abortions. The justices will hear arguments next fall challenging a ruling by the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, which struck down provisions in an Illinois law regulating doctors who perform abortions.