Posted January 7, 2011 3:42 pm by with 4 comments

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Everyone agrees that stealing the work of another person is wrong, but the definition of what constitutes stealing is a murkier matter. In most cases we roll back to the term “fair use” which allows a person to quote a section of an article or book for the purposes of education or discussion. You see that here all the time. There’s no malicious intent and there is no damage to the original party. On the contrary, the original writer will likely get a traffic boost from people clicking through to the source material, so it’s often a good thing.

Now here comes Righthaven LLC. According to a story in Fortune, the law firm is taking an aggressive stance against copyright violators by skipping the cease and desist letter and going straight to court. In every case, they’re demanding $150,000 in damages and the offender’s domain name. Ouch.

What’s especially disturbing about Righthaven’s crusade is the way they’re going about it. In order to prosecute, the original creator of the material transfers copyright ownership to Righthaven so they can sue on their own behalf. One judge took exception to this saying they aren’t a publisher, so they can’t sell the original work, so no damages.

The real fear here is not whether Righthaven has a leg to stand on, but that most people won’t have the money to fight. When faced with court costs, most bloggers will have no choice but to pay a fine and give up their domain name even if they were inside the letter of the law.

Fortune author Pullen asks this question:

But the damages to society, print publications, and the Internet at large may far surpass any fine, no matter how substantial. These cases will define where — in the social media era — sharing ends, stealing begins, and fair use applies.

Sounds like it’s time for the courts to tighten up the rules. For example? If a blog offers an RSS feed and I put that feed on my website, is that a violation? Does the act of offering a feed or a share button negate their copyright claim? Could we reach a point where the fear of getting sued outweighs the interest in reposting an article or photo? Will the court system ever catch up to technology?

Tune in tomorrow. Same blog-time. Same blog-channel.

  • Sadly this does not really surprise me. People are sue happy these days. But, seeing this from both sides, many bloggers are siphoning content as well. But what’s the real motive behind this? To make a buck off of someone else.

    Look news guy, you took the story from poor suffering widow. Blogger you took the story from news guy. Advertiser, you are paying a news guy and a blogger to take stories from poor suffering widows. Audience you are encouraging this by laughing about poor suffering widows story.

    Funny that a news agency feels back about this even when that same foundation lies at their own home base. Did our parents teach us to share?

  • I am a lawyer, and I hate it when I read stories about people who abuse the legal system. The sad truth is, most people who get sued, especially for something like this, probably don’t have the money to defend themselves. I think most people who publish excerpts from news articles or other content are protected under the fair use doctrine as long as there’s an attribution. Where you really get into trouble is when you copy and paste stuff that isn’t yours and try to pass it off as your own.

  • Cynthia: Thanks for the great article! As a former IP lawyer and current founder of a startup using social media as the primary marketing tool, this tactic bring up a couple of good points:

    1. It always pays to be gentlemanly. How hard is it to give credit where credit is due? Most social “sharing” apps even have built in links so that the source url is shown automatically. For this reason alone, I believe it is doubtful that social media will dilute copyrights. I agree that most of the violations occur with cut and pasting that is not attributed to its original author. This is hard to do (WordPress automatically includes the URL when you cut and paste something into a post…)

    Even so, such plagarism is probably most often due to haste rather than to malicious intent, which is why I believe a cease and desist letter should always be sent first. Not only is it good form to send a letter before filing suit, but it often works–the infringer stops using the content or provides credit–either way its a good thing.

    2. Content creators need to know the limitation of common law copyrights. When the shoe is on the oher foot and our content has been misused without attribution, it will be advisible to register with the US Copyright Office before any legal action is taken. Why? Because registration allows for statutory damages and attorneys’ fees, which provide the umph behind the letter. So if the content is valuable, why not register in the first place? The cost to do so is not prohibitive, and for those who view blogging as a business, it just makes sense.

  • I’m afraid to comment as I may say something that someone somewhere may have previously said. The reality is that the stuff I publish is out there and if you want it come and get it, I dont care what you do. Chasing you goof balls is a waste of my time. Although, if somebody offers to pay me for my rights so they can flog the helpless I’ll likely sell out too. What a mess. Welcome to the brier patch 😉 hehehehehe