Copyright Infringement Litigation Campaign Now Sees Senator Candidate As Latest Victim

News and commentary often go hand in hand. That’s not untrue when it comes to political news. Proving not only that large litigation campaigns aren’t just for file-sharers anymore and that copyright infringement cases are bi-partisan, US Republican senator candidate Sharron Angle has found herself on the copyright lawsuit hit list.

Note: This is an article I wrote that was published elsewhere first. It has been republished here for archival purposes

During the RIAAs litigation campaign against students in their effort to stop campus piracy, there was one noticeable school that was always missing from the schools that were affected – Harvard Law School. It also always seemed like whenever a lawsuit would go beyond discovery, the person on the wrong end of the lawsuit almost always seemed to fit the demographic of someone who couldn’t afford to defend themselves.

It’s no surprise that these observations have led some to believe that the way precedents are set (when it comes to copyright matters) by finding the easiest target and trying to set as many precedents as possible that work out in the copyright holders favor.

If you thought that this will always be the case, well, that image may have been shattered thanks to a newspapers legal campaign to stop copyright infringing material related to news.

A few months ago, Threat Level reported on Righthaven LLC and their quest to save the news industry:

Borrowing a page from patent trolls, the CEO of fledgling Las Vegas-based Righthaven has begun buying out the copyrights to newspaper content for the sole purpose of suing blogs and websites that re-post those articles without permission. And he says he’s making money.

“We believe it’s the best solution out there,” Gibson says. “Media companies’ assets are very much their copyrights. These companies need to understand and appreciate that those assets have value more than merely the present advertising revenues.”

The article presented a few cases of copyright infringement where Conservative media outlets were targeted for this copyright infringement campaign. It turns out, the litigation campaign has grown significantly since its early beginnings. The Las Vegas Sun is now reporting that Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle has now also received a copyright infringement notice. Apparently, they are demanding $150,000 in fines and direct ownership of her domain for reposting a part of a newspaper article.

If you think that this is only Republicans being affected and that this is a partisan issue, think again. From the Las Vegas Sun:

The Democratic Party of Nevada, which has also been sued by Righthaven, charged in an Aug. 23 press release that the Review-Journal had a double standard to “hold Angle harmless while suing the Democratic Party and progressive organizations.”

Steve Friess, a Las Vegas freelancer writer and columnist for Las Vegas Weekly, a sister newspaper to the Las Vegas Sun, has been supportive of Righthaven because Friess has seen material owned by him and other freelancers infringed on.

In a blog post last month, Friess said Righthaven had to sue Angle. Friess posted several screenshots of R-J stories on Angle’s website and wrote that “thousands of readers have seen these stories on SharronAngle.Com and not ReviewJournal.Com; that’s a clear loss of the eyeballs that translate into advertising revenue.”

So, ultimately speaking, both sides of the US political spectrum have been hit with this litigation campaign. So if this is not a partisan issue, then it’s clearly a rather surreal battle that pits corporate interests against political entities. Quite strange considering when it comes to the DMCA, copyright term extension and raising penalties for copyright violations, you’d almost get the impression that corporate interests were pretty much lock-step with political interests. Apparently, not in this case.

Still, it raises a much more important issue of free speech. If one were to, say, take a snippet out of an article and commented much like what I am doing right now, is that not fair use? I am linking to the sources of these articles and commenting on a tiny snippet and offering new bits of information to contribute to the knowledge of the issue. I don’t see how this would be considered contributing to the “loss of the eyeballs that translate into advertising revenue.”

If, however, a whole article was simply copy and pasted, that’s a different matter – it would no doubt be harder to say that it was an act of fair use. So which is it? Well, one of the postings mentioned in the Sun article was this posting which was alleged to have infringed on this article. The article on the candidate’s site featured 7 paragraphs from the original source. The article from the original source had a grand total of 22 paragraphs. I’m not a legal expert, but as my personal opinion, that looks like its grounds to argue fair use in this case. I would go further to say that even if there is no opinion attached to the alleged infringing posting, it’s still free advertising nevertheless, so I don’t personally think it would necessarily prevent any eyes from seeing the original site – in fact, quite the contrary, it encourages users to see that article in the first place. That’s pretty much one of the purposes of linking in the first place.

After looking at this case, I’d say this shows legitimate concern that free speech would be hamstrung by copyright lawsuits because many sites use news as a means of informing their audience of what’s going on and it’s often sourced from other journalists. In many academic papers, blockquotes are used to take entire chunks from other copyrighted material for the purpose of engaging discussion. In schools, parts of an article can be used to make an audience engaged and interested in a given topic and, in a lecture scenario, content might not be added to the article. Some sites offer printer friendly versions of their articles? Is it now an infringement to print that article?

There’s plenty of ways to look at this that would suggest this sort of activity wouldn’t really be infringing. Additionally, what is being solved by suing hundreds of blogs anyway? If the purpose is to discourage an audience from reading your articles, then yes, the campaign is potentially going to be successful – but few journalists want to stop readers from reading their article to my knowledge.

Personally, I think suing your audience is not how you conduct a news-related business online. Stopping people from reading your articles to protect your business – to my knowledge, that’s not how the business end of the internet works.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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