Suing newspaper readers who post excerpts of articles and link back to them seems like a very questionable business decision.
Yet that's exactly what's going on in Nevada, where a new company, Righthaven, has recently filed five lawsuits alleging copyright infringement based on lifting portions of articles from the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Righthaven alleges that it has obtained exclusive rights in the copyrights from the newspaper's parent company.
The defendants include a local real estate agent, the advocacy group NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), and a gambling portal. None are competing news organizations.
In an unusual sequence of events, Righthaven filed suit before anyone had asked the defendants to remove the posts. While there's no law requiring content owners to send cease-and-desists before suing, the failure to do so here indicates that the motive wasn't to take down the articles as much as to shake down the people and organizations who had posted them.
In an era of declining ad revenue and circulation, it's understandable if newspaper executives are somewhat panicked about their future. It's also understandable if newspaper executives are tempted to sue online aggregators or rivals for "stealing" content.
But arranging for a third party to target readers like a local real estate agent, and nonprofits like NORML? That can only hurt the paper's reputation with its readers while doing very little to solve the underlying business issues, such as the migration of classified ads to free sites like Craigslist.
What's more, the initiative isn't likely to generate much revenue for anyone.
First of all, some defendants have already told the press they intend to argue they made fair use of the articles. Any litigation over that issue will probably prove expensive for all parties -- including Righthaven.
Second, it seems unlikely that the newspaper will be able to prove that it suffered damages as a result of the excerpts and links. Yes, the federal copyright statute provides for a minimum damage award of $750 per infringement, but that could quickly be eaten up by litigation costs.
What's more, some copyright defendants in music piracy cases are challenging the constitutionality of the law's damages provisions. The argument against statutory minimums seems even stronger here, where readers shared news stories and provided links back to the paper.