There are few surefire ways to make money in Las Vegas, but one company seems to have found one. The play: Form a venture with the city’s largest newspaper; then scan the Web for potential infringements of that paper’s articles; license the stories from the paper, and file a lawsuit against the accused infringers.
Righthaven LLC, the venture started by Vegas attorney Steve Gibson in partnership with The Las Vegas Review Journal, bypasses the standard industry practice of sending a Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown notice to copyright offenders and moves straight toward litigation. Since the company formed last year, Righthaven has filed more than 200 cases seeking the copyright law’s maximum of $150,000 in statutory damages as well ownership of the domain names of offenders’ websites.
Many would argue that aggressive copyright protection is in the best interests of everyone – particularly the writers and media organs that work so hard to produce original content. The problem in this case, according to opponents, is that Righthaven is shaking down smalltime bloggers and operators (from a website promoting herbal remedies for hangovers to a climate change discussion group) for settlements – regardless of the defense.
In a Fortune magazine story on Righthaven, Kurt Opsahl, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit legal services group that is representing several clients sued by Righthaven, said the company is forcing alleged infringers to either settle – mostly for four-figure sums so far – or get crushed by mounting legal bills while fighting the lawsuits. "People will say it's too expensive to defend, even if they have a meritorious defense," he told Fortune. "This creates a troubling business model."
In a Q&A with Fortune, Gibson denied this strategy: “… We don't have the ability to determine the relative wealth when we file a lawsuit. There are many individuals that are wealthier than some companies, and there are many non-profits that have a funding stream that is substantial… We don't discriminate in terms of infringement, whether the owner has a lot or a little money.” Indeed, the company has sued on both sides of the political fence, including the Nevada Democratic Party, for posting a Review-Journal story on its site, and Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle for posting two stories to her site without permission.
The Las Vegas Sun, which has been following the saga, reported last week that Righthaven has now broadened its sights to target individual Web publishers, not just website operators. One poster, Jim Higgins, forwarded a Review-Journal column to a Google Groups message board and credited its author, but not the Review-Journal. Another defendant, Wayne Hoehn, posted an unauthorized copy of a Review-Journal column about public employee pensions and credited both the paper and the article’s author.
As Righthaven has pursued an increasing number of copyright infringers, it has collected some counterclaims charging abuse of the court system, as well as the moniker “copyright troll.” A Righthaven Victims website has been created and lists every defendant, charging that the company is causing “irreparable harm” to the “mom and pop websites…nonprofit, political action, public interest, writers and forum board operators” it sues.
So far, the only definitive ruling is one against Righthaven, in which a judge found that a Las Vegas real estate agent was protected by the fair use doctrine in posting part of a Review-Journal story on his website.
The Fortune story, for its part, says Righthaven’s “crapshoot” could “maim social media.” Where do you stand? Is the best way to protect content to widen the net, suing everyone from complicit to unaware copyright infringers? Or is there a better way?