- Lawyers for journalist Bob Woodward are accusing former President Trump of threatening free speech.
- Trump sued Woodward in January, claiming ownership over recordings of interviews he participated in.
- A victory for Trump would invite “contractual censorship of criticism,” the attorneys wrote.
A victory for Donald Trump in federal court would be a blow against freedom, encouraging powerful politicians and others to use the guise of copyright to censor their critics and a”chill open discourse,” lawyers for journalist Bob Woodward argued Monday as part of a legal battle over who owns the words that came out of the former president’s mouth while he was in office.
In January, Trump sued the legendary reporter for The Washington Post in a Florida federal court after he published audio recordings of interviews he had conducted with the former president, dubbed “The Trump Tapes.”
An attorney for Trump, who is seeking more than $49 million, argued that the publication violated an alleged verbal contract that Woodward had made to only use the interviews for one, written book, “Rage,” published on the eve of the 2020 election — and that Trump, as the subject of the interviews, was in fact the rightful owner of the copyright over the recordings and thus entitled to at least half the proceeds.
Legal experts previously told Insider that Trump was unlikely to win the case, arguing that, above all, courts would be hesitant to establish a thorny precedent that could grant politicians legal ownership over comments they made while in office (and the ensuing right to block their publication). Some speculated that the lawsuit was filed, primarily, as a means of demonstrating Trump’s annoyance over embarrassing material being made public — and lending it the veneer of legitimacy. As one publishing industry lawyer said of the former president’s legal action: “It’s a press release designed as a complaint.”
Attorneys for Woodward, his publisher, Simon & Shuster, and parent company Paramount say the case should just be thrown out.
In a motion to dismiss, filed Monday, lawyers for the defendants note that the former president never filed his own copyright registration for the works in question. And, they argue, it would not even matter if he did because government employees simply cannot claim ownership of things they said to a journalist while in public office.
The alternative — upholding a politician’s ownership claim over a journalist’s interviews — would threaten the right to free speech, the attorneys state.
“Such a regime would give President Trump and other public officials interviewed by the press the right to sue over any critical or unwelcome use of their statements,” the attorneys wrote in another filing laying out the legal case behind their motion to dismiss. “Copyright equates to legal control over expression and requiring journalists to negotiate authorship rights away from interviewees, particularly public officials, would invite contractual censorship of criticism and chill open discourse.”
The question is not an abstract one, either, coming just as Trump has been indicted on multiple felony counts in Manhattan.
“Any decision granting President Trump private ownership of his statements to the press as President would stymie discussion of his place in American history and contradict the long tradition of opening up a President’s words to public scrutiny,” the attorneys argue.
Lawyers for Woodward and his publisher are also seeking to have the case dismissed on the grounds that Trump filed it in an improper venue, arguing that it should be heard instead — if at all — in Washington, DC, where many of the interviews were conducted.
An attorney for Trump, Robert Garson, accused the defendants of disguising a cash grab behind rhetoric about the public good. The former president, he maintained, has a right to own his responses in the Woodward interviews, but was unable to file a copyright claim himself because he didn’t have his own copies of the recordings.
But Garson conceded that the case is not a typical copyright dispute, given the parties, and that the law is in some respects murky when it comes to public figures and intellectual property.
“The one thing you can say is this case, like many others with Trump, is a first,” Garson told Insider. “It’s going to be an interesting one, that’s for sure.”
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