Copyright trolls are nothing new, and Righthaven is just the latest group of lawyers to try to turn copyright litigation into a business model. What these lawyers have in common is that they seek to take advantage of copyright's draconian damages in order to bully Internet users into forking over money. To anyone who has watched the file-sharing lawsuits of the last few years or the current BitTorrent cases brought by a DC law firm, the Righthaven saga is developing into a familiar, unfortunate story. It also has some especially troubling twists.
The basic pattern: Righthaven has brought over a hundred lawsuits in Nevada federal court claiming copyright infringement. They find cases by (a) scouring the Internet for parts of newspaper stories posted online by individuals, nonprofits, and others, (b) buying the copyright to that particular newspaper story, and then (c) proceeding to sue the poster for copyright infringement. Like the RIAA and USCG before them, Righthaven is relying on the fact that their victims may face huge legal bills through crippling statutory damages and the prospect of paying Righthaven's legal fees if they lose the case. Consequently, many victims will settle with Righthaven for a few thousand dollars regardless of their innocence, their right to fair use, or other potential legal defenses.
However, Righthaven is unlike other copyright trolls in some key ways:
- Righthaven is going after bloggers using text news stories for comment or discussion. Many lawsuit targets are using the newspaper articles to augment discussions about current events. Reposting all or part of news stories is part and parcel of digital commentary and discussion and usually the goal of the reposting is to share the uncopyrightable facts included in the article, not the copyrighted expression, like the specific turns of phrase used by the author. By targeting news, Righthaven's lawsuits could have a chilling effect on individuals' attempts to engage their communities in free and open discussion.
- Righthaven is fighting the basic mode of Internet debate. Other copyright trolls have involved controversy over file-sharing programs and encoded digital media, like music and movies. But Righthaven is taking aim at folks who are using elementary "copy & paste" functionalities. Online discussion survives and thrives on showing others the original text before adding a commentary or response. Accurate quoting is a virtue of Internet discussion that can minimize mischarcterization and support progress in a debate.
- Righthaven lawsuits are demanding that courts freeze and transfer the defendants' domain names. Imagine if a single copyright infringement on Huffingtonpost.com or Redstate.com could result in forfeiture of the entire domain. Effectively asking for control of all of a website's existing and future content -- instead of only targeting the allegedly infringing material -- is an overreaching remedy for a single copyright infringement not validated by copyright law or any legal precedent. This also indicates that the attorneys are willing to make overreaching claims in order to scare defendants into a fast settlement.
- Righthaven goes straight for litigation. Righthaven isn't sending cease and desist letters or DMCA takedown notices that would allow the targeted bloggers or website operators to remove or amend only the news articles owned by Righthaven. Instead, Righthaven starts with a full-fledged lawsuit in federal court with no warning. It's sue first and ask questions later, which smacks of a strategy designed to churn up legal costs and intimidate defendants into paying up immediately, rather than a strategy aimed at remedying specific copyright infringements.
Righthaven is claiming that its activities are intended to have a "deterrent effect" on the reposting of news stories online, but it's hard to resist viewing Righthaven's actions as purely business-related. In addition to the sharp legal tactics discussed above, Righthaven appears to only buy copyrights that it believes can be used for lawsuits and otherwise has no involvement in the practice of journalism.
Righthaven also appears to be soliciting other newspapers to sign on with it. But newspaper publishers who think that suing bloggers a story at a time will save journalism are sorely mistaken. Newspaper publishers have actually been having meaningful discussions about innovative business models to support real journalism. Sadly, Righthaven -- if it continues to attract clients -- threatens to derail those conversations with a sideshow proven to distract from progress.
But no matter where a newspaper may stand on the debate about journalism's future, we think it is abundantly clear that a "sue the audience" tactic is nowhere near worth considering. Newspapers should resist the temptation to put themselves into the same position as the music industry circa 2004, where futile lawsuits distracted them from the incorporating new technology and creating new ways to market product to fans.
EFF is watching Righthaven and other copyright trolls closely for overbroad tactics that hurt free speech and fair use, and abuse the legal system. We're looking for good cases to defend and will deliver more news and analysis as the issue develops.