May 13, 2013

Newspaper copyright troll Righthaven finally conquered

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Copyright trolls, no longer simply lurking under bridges, have taken to the internet, using threats of legal action to make quick money.

The trolling technique has proved so popular in fact, that many companies have based entire business models on it. One such was Las Vegas troll Righthaven, which licensed articles from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and scoured the internet to find anyone who hosted the Review-Journal’s content. Righthaven would then sue whomever they found for awards as high as $150,000. According to Nate Anderson at Ars Technica, those sued included actual sources of Las Vegas Review-Journal stories.

Last week, Righthaven’s predatory business model was in shambles, when the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit dismissed their case. The case was thrown out because Righthaven didn’t have standing to bring an action against the defendants, who had both used a Review-Journal article on their websites.

According to the Circuit Judge Richard R. Clifton, Righthaven never had legal standing, because in licensing the Review-Journal’s articles and receiving “limited, revocable assignment[s]” of copyright, they assigned themselves only the right to sue for infringement. Under the Copyright Act, only the “legal or beneficial owner of an exclusive right under a copyright” has standing to sue for infringement of that right. The bare right to sue for infringement not only fails to confer actual exclusive control of copyright, it’s not even a right under copyright law.

Although the outcome of the Righthaven case was welcome, the whole process wasted the court’s time and money and shows just how easy it is to use the internet, and an outdated legal system, to troll people with bogus legal claims.

Despite their blustering, these businesses are for-profit enterprises, and have little or nothing to do with deterring copyright infringement.

Federal judges have been smacking down copyright troll cases right and left. Prenda Law, another copyright troll, was dismantled earlier this month when a number of their lawyers pleaded the Fifth Amendment, in an attempt to avoid answering the presiding Judge’s questions. That might have been the best decision, as there were allegations that Prenda had fraudulently signed documents asserting that they owned rights.

While the courts seem to be on board with this fight, legislative reform is still needed to solve these issues in the long-term.

As the District Judge Otis D. Wright, II in the Prenda Law case wrote,

“Plaintiffs have outmaneuvered the legal system. They’ve discovered the nexus of antiquated copyright laws, paralyzing social stigma, and unaffordable defense costs… Then they offer to settle—for a sum calculated to be just below the cost of a bare-bones defense…So now, copyright laws originally designed to compensate starving artists allow, starving attorneys in this electronic-media era to plunder the citizenry.”

As long as there are holes in the Copyright Act deep enough for these trolls to hide, you can be sure that they will be lurking.

 

Ariel Bogle is a former publicist at Melville House.

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