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Beware the Copyright Troll

How you might get sued for “re-posting” on the web.

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How you might get sued for “re-posting” on the web.

By Nick Briz


Illustration by Colin Grimm

Margaret Soltan is an English professor at George Washington University in D.C. who was recently sued for her blog “University Diaries,” in which she critiques American university life. Surprisingly, Soltan is not being sued for scandalous content. Rather, the lawsuit concerns her use of quotes from a news article regarding a criminally charged university football coach. “My blog is educational, non-commercial, and includes a long-running critique of university sports, of which this post is clearly a part,” Sultan explains. While that very well may be the case, the article she quoted was not hers to share; it belongs to a daily paper called the Las Vegas Review Journal. Ms. Soltan clearly didn’t do anything out of the ordinary; re-posting articles is key to the web’s information eco-system, and is vital to the discussions that web-users get into on blogs, Tumblrs, Facebook and Twitter pages on a daily basis. So who’s going after Margaret Soltan? Copyright trolls!

What, you may ask, is a copyright troll? The copyright troll is to intellectual property what the highly criticized patent troll is to patents. When one looks at the evolution of copyright law (from the Statute of Anne to the Sonny Bono “Mickey Mouse” Extension Act), it becomes clear that we’ve lost the initial goal of copyright: to provide incentive for creators to create and contribute to culture without fear of being exploited. A copyright troll is a company which abuses the law to do the exact opposite. Such companies do not produce creative works of their own; rather, they acquire rights from other companies and scour the web for “unauthorized” uses of those companies’ works for the purpose of making money through litigation — and they are making a profitable business out of it.

To date, the worst example is the Las Vegas start-up, Righthaven LLC, led by CEO Steve Gibson. Righthaven targets those who re-post news articles, and in just a few months have filed over 100 lawsuits on behalf of its only client, Las Vegas Review Journal. The company’s methods have garnered Righthaven quite a reputation for attempting to prosecute anyone from “mom-and-pop bloggers” to politicians, to the Journal’s own sources without warning. Instead of sending “cease and desist” letters or DMCA take-down notices, which would allow bloggers the chance to remove the articles in question, Rightaven subscribes to the “sue first, ask questions later” model, waging fully-fledged lawsuits in federal court.

Wired magazine reports that Righthaven relies on “the harsh penalties in the Copyright Act — up to $150,000 for a single infringement — to compel quick settlements.” Though many of these cases are more than obvious candidates for fair-use, the legal costs of fighting in court are roughly equal to the cost of out-of-court settlements (roughly $1,500-$3,500). Thomas Dunlap, Righthaven’s head litigation lawyer, said, “People are settling with us” — and that of course is the goal, profiting from forced settlements through intimidation.

Worse still, Righthaven is going after one of the principle tools of on-line debate: copy & paste. The EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) writes, “Online discussion survives and thrives on showing others the original text before adding a commentary or response. Accurate quoting is a virtue of Internet discussion that can minimize mischaracterization and support progress in a debate.”

Wired reports that the Las Vegas firm is in the process of taking on some new clients. If this blatant abuse of copyright law goes unchallenged, it could motivate even more enterprising copyright trolls to take to the internet, taking advantage of laws designed to provide incentives for authors to create with no intention of actually promoting or creating works themselves. Such actions threaten the sharing of information on the Internet as we know it.

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