by Jane Briggs-Bunting
Stephens Media and its erstwhile partner, Righthaven LLC, lost a significant copyright battle in both Nevada and likely Colorado when a Nevada judge ruled Tuesday that Righthaven did not have standing to sue alleged copyright infringers who had reproduced articles and other content from the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
It’s yet another push by news media to try to get paid for republication of news content reproduced by aggregators, bloggers and others, with or without credit. And bloggers and folks from groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) are fighting back, dubbing Righthaven nothing more than a “Copyright Troll.”
Most news media companies were, with the notable exception of the Wall Street Journal, abysmally slow to react to content poaching by others and reluctant to establish pay walls.
The music industry more or less successfully addressed the issue with a lawsuit against Napster. The movie and TV entertainment industries also seemed more aggressive in protecting their copyright. Good thinking on their parts.
As circulation dropped and advertising revenues plummeted, some newspapers have outright failed and shuttered their doors (think Rocky Mountain News as just one example) while others are struggling to survive. (That’s not to say the web is the chief or only culprit in the decline.)
Enter Righthaven LLC into the fray. It entered into a contract with Stephens Media, owner of the Vegas paper, which gave Righthaven an ownership interest in the copyrighted materials published in the Review-Journal. Then Righthaven’s CEO, Steve Gibson, got busy filing copyright infringement lawsuits – a lot of them – in various federal courts against bloggers and other websites that were reprinting Review-Journal news articles or parts of news articles without paying for the right. Most of the lawsuits so far had settled with Righthaven and Stephens Media splitting the profits, presumably minus court costs and expenses.
But then the EFF got involved in one of the cases involving the Democratic Underground blog that, according to court filings, published four paragraphs of a 34-paragraph story originally published by the Las Vegas Review-Journal. That’s when the real push back started.
A Colorado judge in May froze about 35 pending Righthaven lawsuits involving Denver Post articles until he could rule on the legitimacy of Righthaven’s legal standing to sue. A review of the contract between the Post and Righthaven is what’s at issue.
Tuesday, Chief U.S. District Judge Roger Hunt of Nevada tossed out a suit filed by Righthaven. The judge ruled the LLC had no standing to sue over copyright violations of articles published by the Las Vegas Review-Journal because the newspaper’s parent company, Stephens Media, still retained rights to the articles, according to the ABA Journal.
Now some of the 100 plus bloggers and news sites that settled are considering going after Righthaven.The Denver Post may also be targeted in a lawsuit by a Tea Party group that had been sued by Righthaven. It’s a messy situation, though the news companies (without a partner like Righthaven LLC) do have standing, and it’s about time they started asserting their copyrights.
Bootlegged movies, music and software are digital piracy (aka stealing).
Just like these other industries, newspapers and news media companies have real costs associated with producing news sites by covering and reporting news. Content is not free and never has been. It’s the result of hard work by reporters, photographers, videographers, editors and producers among a host of others.
If more news sites go out of business, news and information that is being aggregated, “borrowed” or in a Napster way outright stolen is going to be harder to find. The public and the country will be the biggest losers.The generic press is certainly not perfect, but what we have in the U.S. is a good deal better than most countries, and the watchdog role of the press is critical to the health and future of the nation.
Non-profit media sites started by journalists like I-News (the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network ), California Watch, and The Texas Tribune are trying to fill the growing deficit with high quality watchdog journalism funded by media foundations, sponsorships, donors and contracts with existing news organizations. These folks are working long hours with uncertain paychecks. The journalists at Pro Publica are more generously paid and better funded, and those reporters and editors are also producing the important investigative journalism vital to the country.
So though the Righthaven’s efforts might now be thwarted, it doesn’t mean the idea of news media companies suing for copyright infringement is a lost cause. It’s not. In fact, it’s an idea that’s long overdue.
As I learned at the Investigative Reporters & Editors conference last week, the Associated Press is reportedly readying a new agreement due out later this summer that will address this pay for content issue. The New York Times started experimenting again with a pay wall in March. (Okay, it took just a few lines of code breaking to plow through it, and even WSJ‘s pay wall leaks.
In other countries, free access is far less common. Grupo Reforma newspapers in Mexico has always required pay for full access to its news sites.
Many smaller newspapers around the country where profit margins are tighter have been using various pay walls for longer and with some success. One small town success is the St. Ignace News in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Viewers can see the headlines and first sentence or so of the stories, but to get full coverage, they need to subscribe. After four weeks, the news archives are free. It’s a model that’s working so far.
Seems like good ideas are starting percolate. Righthaven LLC may have been rapacious in its filings, but the notion was long overdue.