Copyright Law Single-Publication Rule Applies to the Internet
Courts continually struggle to apply traditional rules of law to the Internet. A good recent example is the July 2002 decision in Firth v. State of New York, a case of first impression decided by New York's highest court.
The issue was whether, for statute of limitations purposes, the single-publication rule is applicable to defamatory statements posted on Internet sites. The single-publication rule holds that the publication of a defamatory statement in an issue of a newspaper or magazine constitutes a single publication that gives rise to one cause of action for defamation that dates from the date of first publication, notwithstanding that thousands of copies may be circulated at different times.
Firth involved allegedly defamatory material posted on the Web site of an agency of the state of New York. The plaintiff argued that the single-publication rule, adopted to apply to traditional mass media, should not be applied to Internet publications, because Web sites are constantly being altered, and that each "hit" or viewing of the defamatory material should be considered a new publication that retriggers the statute of limitations.
The court disagreed, finding that the traditional rule should apply to Internet publications. It held that "neither the time nor the circumstance in which a copy of a book or other publication finds its way to a particular consumer is, in and of itself, to militate against the operation of the unitary, integrated publication concept".
Interestingly, the plaintiff in this case argued that the exception to the single publication rule that applies to a new edition or version of book or periodical should apply to any modifications of a Web site. The court did not buy this argument either, not surprisingly given that many Web sites are updated or modified almost on a daily basis. The court reasoned that "a rule applying the republication exception under the circumstances here would either discourage the placement of information on the Internet or slow the exchange of such information, reducing the Internet's unique advantages.
Comment: This case presents another example of traditional legal rules being applied to the Internet. For awhile it looked like a lot of special rules would be formulated governing the Internet. To some extent this has been the pattern in Europe; however, in the United States the trend seems to be in the direction of applying familiar rules of law to cyberspace activities.
Jere M. Webb