New York Times standards editor Phil Corbett sent this to colleagues today:
As we increasingly use DocumentCloud and other tools to allow readers to view source documents, here’s an important reminder.
Posting documents with our stories can add significant journalistic value. But it can also raise a range of legal issues. Editors should consult with our colleagues in the legal department and give them time to review the documents before we post them.
In most cases, private entities have a copyright claim to their own documents, even if the documents have no obvious commercial value. Even state and local governments may hold a copyright claim in their documents. (The federal government is an exception; it does not have such a copyright interest.) In some case, it may be wise to post excerpts, or to publish only a limited selection.
Posting documents may also raise privacy questions, libel concerns or other issues. Our lawyers may also want to review how documents were obtained.
As always, their goal is to help us find the right way to publish what we need to publish, not to prevent us from doing so. But their advice could save us a lot of trouble.
Let us know if you have questions. Thanks.