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Feb. 25, 2009, 1:13 p.m.

NYT threatens news aggregator over use of logo; Newser’s reply: “I’ll put a skull and crossbones in its place”

Is this a new salvo in the Battle of News Aggregation? Michael Wolff, the founder of Newser, says he received a legal threat from The New York Times Company “about two weeks ago” over use of the Times’ logo on his popular news aggregator. In a blistering blog post this morning, Wolff said the Times threatened “criminal prosecution” and suggested that he is being targeted as an enemy of the newspaper company. I’ve put in calls to the Times but haven’t heard back; we’ll post their response when we get it. (See NYT Co. statement below.)

But in a phone interview moments ago, Wolff told me that Newser has “responded formally” to the Times defending its use of the newspaper’s small “T” logo. (See the image above for a typical example on Newser today.) Wolff declined to release the letter, which came from the Times Co.’s general counsel’s office, but described its contents this way: “You’re using our logo. We don’t want you using our logo. There wasn’t much more to it than that.” He called the claim of trademark infringement “way over the top” and added, addressing the Times:

We think we’re within our rights here, and also you’re crazy for wanting this. But we’ll take the logo off. I don’t really care. I’ll put a skull and crossbones in its place. It makes no difference.

Newser claims 1.5 million unique visitors per month. The legal threat comes soon after GateHouse Media sued the Times Co. for a suite of hyperlocal news sites that aggregated content from GateHouse and other sources. Among other claims, GateHouse said the Times Co. was violating its trademark by attributing headlines and ledes to GateHouse newspapers. The Times Co. said the lawsuit was without merit but settled in January under terms that were seen as favorable to GateHouse.

In his blog post, Wolff also said that the Times’ new prototype for viewing the newspaper online, known as Article Skimmer, is a “theft” of Newser’s grid layout. When I spoke to Andre Behrens, the creator of Article Skimmer, he said that he had seen Newser but didn’t use it as an inspiration. “There were no conscious efforts on my part” to emulate existing news-site designs, Behrens said.

UPDATE, 2:07 p.m.: Catherine Mathis, a spokeswoman for the Times, just sent me this statement:

In response to your question, we asked Newser to take down a photograph that they took from NYTimes.com, without permission (and misattributed) and we have asked them not to use our gothic “T” logo.

UPDATE, 2:33 p.m.: I’m trying to get Mathis on the phone, but in the meantime, she sent this by email, elaborating on the statement above:

The gothic “T” is trademarked. The photo was one taken on behalf of The New York Times to accompany a story that appeared in January. I believe Newser took it down.

I’ve also called back Wolff for more information and will let you know what I hear.

UPDATE, 3:10 p.m.: Wolff says Newser did remove a Times photograph, calling its publication an editor’s mistake. So after some back-and-forth, the pertinent question remains whether Newser can use the Times’ Gothic “T” logo in its story panels (as shown above). I don’t think this is just “smoke,” as Peter Kafka of All Things Digital suggests. It may not be a huge issue on its own, but these sorts of disputes will begin to establish a legal framework for assessing when news aggregators “go too far.” Anyway, here’s the email I just received from Wolff:

We only use licensed or free-for-use promotional photographs on Newser. Our editor believed the picture that the Times cites as their own was a promotional photo. We removed it as soon as we were alerted to its real provenance.

POSTED     Feb. 25, 2009, 1:13 p.m.
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