A federal judge in Colorado has ruled that Righthaven never had the right to bring copyright infringement lawsuits against a blogger who allegedly reposted a photo that originally appeared in The Denver Post.
U.S. District Court Judge John Kane said that Righthaven lacked standing to sue because it didn't obtain the right to license the material from The Denver Post's parent company, MediaNews Group. Instead, Righthaven only obtained the ability to bring infringement lawsuits. But companies can't sue for infringement unless they also can sell or license the material, Kane ruled on Tuesday in a decision dismissing a lawsuit against Leland Wolf, who operated the It Makes Sense blog.
Wolf allegedly posted a photo of a TSA airport patdown that originally appeared in The Denver Post, but was later widely circulated online. While Kane's ruling only dealt with Righthaven's lawsuit against Wolf, the judge likely will dismiss the 33 other Righthaven lawsuits pending in Colorado because all are based on the same contract with MediaNews Group.
Kane specifically criticized the copyright enforcer's business model. He wrote that a company like Righthaven "derives its sole economic benefit by instituting claims of infringement, a course of action which necessarily limits public access to the copyrighted work." That model "prioritizes economic benefit over public access," he wrote.
In addition, Kane ordered Righthaven to reimburse Wolf's defense team for their work on the case.
Righthaven filed a total of 57 lawsuits in that state, all alleging infringement of material from the Denver Post. Several of the bloggers who were sued previously agreed to settle the lawsuits, including right-wing pundit Matt Drudge. It's not yet clear whether they will be able to vacate those settlements or otherwise recover any money they might have paid to Righthaven.
For Righthaven, Kane's ruling is the latest in a series of blows by the judicial system. Four separate judges in Nevada also recently dismissed lawsuits brought by Righthaven for infringement of material from the Las Vegas Review-Journal. (Unlike the situation in Colorado, where Kane is handling all Righthaven lawsuits, the cases in Nevada are spread out among different federal judges.)
Righthaven and the Review-Journal parent company, Stephens Media, recently revised their contract to transfer more rights to Righthaven. The company is now arguing that the new contract gives it the right to sue in Nevada, but judges there haven't yet ruled on the matter.
In Colorado, however, the Denver Post cases are unlikely to be revived because because MediaNews Group is terminating its business dealing with Righthaven at the end of this month. The new CEO, John Paton, has long criticized the lawsuit strategy. Last year, when Paton was CEO of the Journal Register Company, he reportedly condemned Righthaven's lawsuits on Twitter, saying they were a bad idea for newspapers.
In another major setback for Righthaven, the company was recently ordered by U.S. District Court Judge Philip Pro in Nevada to pay more than $34,000 to defense attorneys who prevailed in one of the lawsuits in that state -- a case against blogger Wayne Hoehn. Righthaven missed the Sept. 25 deadline for payment, spurring Hoehn's lawyers to ask that the company be held in contempt. That matter is still pending.
Righthaven on Tuesday asked the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to stay the order that it reimburse Hoehn's attorneys. The appellate court hasn't yet issued a decision.