by Rainey Reitman and Kurt Opsahl
Copyright troll Righthaven's flawed business model—suing hundreds of bloggers and small websites for dubious cases of alleged copyright infringement of newspaper articles—appears to be grinding to an inexorable finish. But even as the Righthaven cases prove that litigation isn't going to magically make print media profitable in the age of the Internet, a new generation of journalists and creators are adapting to the digital world—including one of Righthaven's former clients.
Last week, reports were circulating that Righthaven was on "life support" after admitting that they aren't currently filing more lawsuits and are apparently teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Even Righthaven's former clients are beginning to see the light. Last week, John Paton, the new CEO of the news conglomerate MediaNews Group, called the decision to engage Righthaven for copyright enforcement "a dumb idea from the start." MediaNews Group was a major Righthaven client, responsible for about 50 lawsuits.
We couldn't agree more with Mr. Paton's view, and we applaud MediaNews Group's decision not to renew its relationship with the copyright troll. The efforts of Righthaven to target bloggers and small websites through an abuse of copyright law was an attack on free speech, forcing blogs like Pam’s House Blend to pay exorbitant settlement fees or fight expensive court battles even when they don’t seem to have infringed on any copyright.
While lamentably few bloggers and website have had the resources to fight back, when they have, the courts haven’t found much legal merit in Righthaven’s business model. Indeed, in Righthaven v. Center for Intercultural Organizing the Court found the non-profit organization made a fair use, with the very nature of Righthaven's business model contributing to its loss.
They've also faced a series of serious setbacks in court, after EFF (representing Democratic Underground) helped uncover a secret "Strategic Alliance Agreement" between Stephens Media (publisher of the Review-Journal) and Righthaven, which showed that the newspaper's purported assignment of the copyrights was a sham. Simply put, Righthaven did not actually own the copyrights at issue. With the SAA uncovered, EFF won defense victories in our cases (Righthaven v. Democratic Underground and Righthaven v. DiBiase), and we continue to help defendants as amicus in other cases.
Even as Righthaven is falling apart, there is hope on the horizon for a new chapter in journalism, preserving this great engine of free expression in the digital age. The Journal Register Company, one of the nation’s leading local news and information companies, last week joined up with MediaNews Group to form Digital First Media. Together, they are embracing the challenge of journalism in an Internet-empowered information economy.
John Paton, also CEO of Digital First Media has been blogging about the company’s vision for surviving and thriving in the digital space. Last week he called for an end to paywalls and aggressive copyright enforcement: "Instead of paywalls, we see greater value creation in the open sharing of our content. Our approach is to treat content like an API – available to any who want it." And in a blog post published the prior day he stated:
News is created and consumed very differently these days. The folks we used to call the Audience have a stake in this because they have a stake in their communities. The same communities we are dedicated to serving.
We believe without quality journalism there is no democracy. No First Amendment without a vibrant Fourth Estate. This is the proposition we are dedicated to.
Collectively, we will harness the energy of nearly 11,000 employees in JRC and Media News to meet that challenge.
Because, we are not of out ideas, we are not out of energy.
We are just getting started.
His extensive strategic plan outlined how traditional print journalism has foundered in the digital age and offered tactics for using the Internet to move forward. It’s a great post—check it out here.
John Paton’s commitment to finding creative new ways to harness the Internet to inform the public shows there can be a viable future for journalism, without threatening bloggers with lawsuits or dragging small businesses into aggressive lawsuits. We hope to see other media companies follow in Digital First Media’s footsteps, accepting that the Internet has changed how users access the news and adapting to the opportunities.