Righthaven: Copyright Trolls Living Under the Information Superhighway

If you’re not familiar with Righthaven, it’s a fairly simple organization:

Righthaven LLC is owned 50/50 by two limited liability companies. The first is Net Sortie Systems, LLC, which is owned by Las Vegas attorney Steven Gibson – the Nevada attorney who is behind all of the lawsuits filed by Righthaven. The second is SI Content Monitor LLC, which is owned by family members of investment banking billionaire Warren Stephens whose investments include Stephens Media, LLC which owns the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Righthaven is the leading copyright troll organization in the country. They use Google searches to find text or images that have been used on blogs, forums or websites. When they find something, they buy the rights to that specific article from the rights holder and sue the offending party. Righthaven never offers any warning. In fact, those being sued usually learn about it in the newspaper.

Righthaven has a standard list of demands which includes a six figure sum (often $150K) for infringement plus the domain name of the site that published the material. This is mostly bluster. Here’s the real plan as described by Boing Boing:

the copyright troll business-model is to skimp on legal analysis, threaten to sue people, and offer “settlements” that are cheaper than paying for a legal defense.

Indeed, they almost always settle out of court for small sums from bloggers who have no means to fight them off. To my knowledge, they have never been given a website URL. In fact there is apparently no basis in law for ever doing so.

There have been over 200 Righthaven lawsuits so far and they have expanded their operation beyond Stephens media to include a list of mostly small time, local newspapers. The papers of note which are now part of this scheme are as follows:

  • The Sun
  • San Jose Mercury News
  • Denver Post
  • Detroit News
  • Salt Lake Tribune
  • Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
  • and the one that started it all the Las Vegas Review Journal

If you are a blog owner who has excerpted material from any of these sites, ever, you need to remove it immediately. Righthaven is known for having a particularly narrow view of fair use. In fact, they sued Democratic Underground for posting just four paragraphs (12%) of a long story, even though DU included a link and clearly intended to direct readers to the story.

They’ve also gone after a number of notable sites on the right. They’ve sued Sweetness and Light, SayAnythingBlog, Pajamas Media and the Drudge Report, the latter two for use of a TSA photo (the one where a guy is on his knees with his hand in someone’s crotch). Drudge settled for an undisclosed sum.

Righthaven sued Sharron Angle for posting a positive editorial on her site just a few weeks before the election. Curiously, they did not sue Harry Reid, despite the fact that his Senate website contained at least two complete LVRJ articles. They also gave the White House a pass on material copied onto the White House blog.

But it’s not just bloggers that need to worry. If you are a blog commenter or forum poster, you can be sued as well if you post portions of an article from one of Righthaven’s clients.

To be clear, many of the suits are not political in nature. Recently, Righthaven sued an autistic hobby-blogger on disability, demanding $6,000 to avoid going to trial. Like leopards on the savanna, it appears to be part of Righthaven’s considered strategy to go after those least capable of defending themselves. A list of their recent targets makes clear that no Fortune 500 companies are involved.

Fortunately, some of the organizations they’ve sued have begun to fight back. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has offered to help a number of bloggers and businesses that have been sued. In fact they defended Democratic Underground from the suit brought against them and won. In December EFF asked a judge to force Righthaven to pay for the cost of the defense. Hopefully, this is the first of many failed suits which will make Righthaven’s business model ultimately unsustainable.

In the meantime, there are a few things you can do to protect yourself:

  • One, avoid the media outlets listed above like the plague. You can actually set your browser to reject loading any material from these sites. Instruction for several different browsers can be found here.
  • Two, if you run a blog or forum, do a search on your own site for the papers listed above to make sure you haven’t used any of their material in the past. If you have, delete the material immediately or reduce the excerpt to no more than a sentence or two. There is such a thing as fair use even if Righthaven doesn’t like it.
  • Third, you can register what is known as a DCMA takedown agent with the US Copyright Office. This only requires filling out a one page form and paying $100 fee. Theoretically, any site which has done this is insulated from suits aimed at commenters (or forum posters) and, just as important, you should be given notice to remove material prior to any lawsuit being filed. If that sounds like a good deal to you, Wired explains how to go about it here.
  • Fourth, you can find out which articles Righthaven is buying (and thus planning lawsuits around) by going to the US Copyright Public Catalog and doing a search. Instructions are here. Here’s what it looks like.
  • Fifth, you might consider making a donation to EFF. They’ve led the charge against these shakedown lawsuits.

There’s no telling how much longer this reverse Robin Hood business model will be a winning strategy for Righthaven. Until they are forced to fold by a string of losses in court, keep an eye on them.

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