Former President Trump claims he owns the audio rights to interviews conducted by Bob Woodward.
But legal experts say it’s unlikely a court will agree with Trump, who claims he owes $50 million.
It’s “a huge reach,” an attorney told Insider.
Donald Trump wants to get paid, or at least let everyone know he’s crazy.
In a lawsuit filed last month, the former president’s lawyers argued that journalist Bob Woodward and his publisher, Simon & Schuster, owe him a hair less than $50 million for releasing an audiobook featuring more than 8 hours of interviews conducted while he was in prison. still in the White House.
“The case revolves around Mr. Woodward’s systematic usurpation, manipulation and exploitation of audio from [former] President Trump,” the complaint, filed in a Florida federal court, states. Woodward, the lawsuit alleges, had the right to use that audio for a written book — emphasis on “a” and “written” — but when that book didn’t sell as he hoped, the lawsuit alleges (“‘Rage ‘ was a complete and utter failure”), he broke his word and packaged the recordings as a separate work.
The lawsuit revolves around an alleged promise that appears not to have been made in writing. To support the case that the Washington Post journalist violated a contract with the former president, the lawsuit cites a December 2019 exchange in Mar-a-Lago in which Trump, asked to speak on the record, replies: “Only for the book, right? Only for the book.” Woodward replies in the affirmative.
But the next line, from Trump and quoted in his own lawsuit, points to the ambiguity of that oral agreement, indicating that the underlying issue was not whether the Washington Post journalist intended to publish one book (or two or three) , but whether he intended to use the material for articles in a newspaper: “So no stories come out, okay.”
Experts consulted by Insider suggest that the lawsuit, while nowhere near as flimsy as the former president’s election-related lawsuit, is unlikely to succeed — and may well be a way to give weight to a complaint, legitimate or not, that has no legal remedy.
“It’s a press release intended as a complaint,” Lloyd J. Jassin, a lawyer who specializes in copyright litigation, said in an interview. Trump bills himself as a shrewd businessman — his lawsuit features all of his best-selling books on how to get rich — and yet he was fired upon by a reporter.
“There is no downside to him other than that, in my opinion, he damages his ego and image,” Jassin said.
A Trump win could make reporting more difficult
Woodward’s book “Rage”, based on his 20 interviews with Trump, was published by Simon & Schuster in October 2020 and sold more than 600,000 copies in its first week – a blockbuster for any other author, but slightly below expectations for the two-time Winner Pulitzer Prize. The audiobook didn’t go on sale for another two years — after that, Woodward says, he decided the release was in the public interest.
“You see who this guy is, what he cares about, the self-focus, the absence of concern for the people out there,” Woodward explained in an interview on MSNBC. “This is while he was president in 2020. All this, it’s a great portrait of a man.”
According to his lawsuit, Trump thinks he should have had a veto.
“If Woodward intended to create an oral history in which to claim rights,” the suit states, “according to industry best practice, he would [former] President Trump as a participant signs his rights as part of the standard interview conducting procedures, after each taping or at the end of the last interview. Woodward did not adhere to this standard and therefore waived such rights.”
Journalists, however, typically don’t ask sources to sign anything before an interview, let alone documents outlining a possible distribution of earnings.
Art Neill, a clinical professor and director of the New Media Rights Program at the California Western School of Law, said it was unlikely that a judge, among other things, would want to set a precedent by imposing a burdensome new requirement on newsgathering.
“A decision in his favor would create more friction every day for journalists who would have to go even further in terms of thinking about what kind of contracts and releases they will have sources sign,” Neill said.
To even get to that point, Trump would have to show not only that he owned the interview, but that the two sides had explicitly agreed not to release the audio.
Even if Woodward had lied through negligence, that probably wouldn’t be enough for a court to step in and claim that an ambiguous contract had been breached, the remedy being that a politician – running again for the highest office – is entitled to a share of the revenue generated by a reporter’s interview. A judge would also have to rule that, other than copyright and contract law, there is no “fair use” justification for a reporter publishing a president’s remarks.
“That’s a huge reach,” Neill said.
A free press and the public interest
It is well known that Trump did not differentiate between himself, the oft-licensed brand, and the office of the presidency. That is clear from his lawsuit, which alleges that he personally owns statements he made at the White House while on a taxpayer-paid salary, complaining that Woodward and his publisher released their audiobook “exclusively for their own financial gain and without any accounting or reward to him.”
But the monetary damages argument is partially undermined by something else the lawsuit seems to acknowledge. The complaint argues that what is being billed as “raw” audio by Woodward and his publisher was in fact lightly edited, implying malice and containing a transcript with the words omitted from the final product – something that could only be done if one had access had to the original recording.
Trump could then have published and sold this audio himself, at least in part. But why would he? The release was widely seen as embarrassing for the former president, showing that he was publicly downplaying the seriousness of COVID-19 so as to, as he put it, “not to panic the people”, and intervened to have a Saudi crown prince to protect. his ass” – from a penalty for the murder of a US citizen.
Trump is, of course, not a normal person either. Rather, he is a former head of state, and at the time when he spoke to a famous journalist, he was a US president expressing his views on both domestic and foreign policy, often speaking from the Oval Office, in the midst of a pandemic.
A publisher’s main interest may be to make money (it may even be an author’s), but experts say that doesn’t negate the fact that there is inherently a public interest served by releasing what a powerful politician has to say about matters of life and death. Some have even argued that the former president’s comments should have been released sooner, not saved for a book at all.
In a joint statement, Woodard and Simon & Schuster said they are confident Trump’s lawsuit is “baseless.”
“All of these interviews were taped and recorded with the knowledge and consent of President Trump,” the parties told Insider. “In addition, it is in the public interest to have this historical record in Trump’s own words. We are confident that the facts and the law are in our favor.”
Freedom of speech advocates are not everywhere engaged in the cause. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression both declined to comment. But some fear that a ruling in favor of the former president, however unlikely, would set a troubling precedent, allowing a politician to dictate how and when his own words, while in office, could be made public.
“A sitting president knowingly sat down for taped interviews with one of the most talented journalists of our time and spoke on matters of great public interest,” said Seth D. Berlin, an attorney at the firm of Ballard Spahr who has represented media clients on the area of copyright and other disputes, Insider told. “Filing a lawsuit over publishing those interviews turns the First Amendment on its head.”
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