As part of a copyright crackdown, a startup called Righthaven has filed five lawsuits against Web sites that allegedly lifted articles from the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
In recent weeks, Righthaven has sued the nonprofit group NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), the association Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, real estate agent and blogger Matt Farnham, gambling site MajorWager.com and the company MoneyReign, which allegedly runs the site casinoreign.com. The lawsuits allege that the defendants reposted articles, or portions of them, from the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Righthaven asserts in court papers that it obtained exclusive rights to reproduce and distribute the newspaper's articles from its parent company, Stephens Media, owned by Las Vegas Review-Journal president Sherman Frederick. Righthaven is run by intellectual property attorney Steven Gibson, who previously brought other, unrelated cases on behalf of Stephens Media.
While some newspaper executives have vocally complained about infringement online, copyright lawsuits over news items remain rare. What's more, when cases are filed, they tend to be against defendants who compete for readers, as happened when Gatehouse Media sued Boston.com or Dow Jones sued Briefing.com. The Righthaven cases, by contrast, are against companies that are not in the news business.
The cases seemed to have come as a surprise to some of the defendants. Farnham, the realtor who was sued last week for allegedly posting portions of two articles to his blog, says no one ever asked him to remove the material. "I would have taken it down in a heartbeat," he says.
Farnham adds that he was only trying to share items that he believed would interest people searching for real estate. "I thought it was a compliment to the paper that I wanted to get that information out," he says, adding that his posts linked back to the newspaper. "I had honest intentions."
NORML executive director Allen St. Pierre says that the site has posted portions of articles and links back to the original sources for 10 years without receiving any previous complaints from publishers.
"We really are flummoxed," he said, adding that no representatives of the Las Vegas Review-Journal asked him to remove the material before suing. "Had we received a notice we would have taken it down, we would have apologized, and we would have asked them what size NORML T-shirts they wanted," he says.
St. Pierre adds that NORML plans to contest the lawsuit. "We think there's a much larger principle at hand here regarding access to information," he says.
He also says the organization received no income or discernible traffic from the alleged infringement. In addition, he says, NORML's news items come from another drug reform organization, MAP Inc.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act does not require content owners to send publishers takedown demands before suing unless infringing content is uploaded by third-parties. The copyright statute also provides for damages ranging from $750 to $150,000 per infringement, regardless of whether the newspapers can show they lost money as a result.
That holds true even if the infringement is relatively insignificant, says Seattle-based Internet law expert Venkat Balasubramani. "There's no de minimus exception," he says.
While the Web sites could attempt to argue that they made fair use of the material, doing so could be an uphill battle if the sites reprinted significant portions of the articles verbatim, without adding original commentary.
Frederick declined to comment on why Stephens Media transferred the copyrights to Righthaven or whether the company planned to do likewise for any of the other newspapers in its chain.
But Righthaven's Gibson indicated that more lawsuits were on the way. "Righthaven's copyright ownership portfolio is increasing," he said. "It certainly is attuned to dealing with copyright infringement that occurs in the electronic environment."