One Troll Down… Many More To Go – by “Anna D”

Righthaven is a copyright holding company that has been menacing website owners in Nevada, Colorado, and South Carolina for the past year, filing lawsuits against them on grounds of copyright infringement of newspaper material. The company started suing in 2010 after signing a confidential agreement with Stephens Media, LLC (publisher of the Las Vegas Review-Journal), and it has subsequently filed 265 cases of copyright violation on behalf of Stephens Media and, Media News Group, and Stevo Deisgn Inc. Righthaven also has an agreement with WEHCO Media, but has not brought any suits on their behalf.

The troll got some bad press after suing the Las Vegas Review-Journal‘s own sources, a reporter writing about a Righthaven lawsuit, charities (including a non-profit supporting immigrants rights), and poor bloggers (including a 20-year old on disability). The Las Vegas Review-Journal has responded to the public criticism without remorse. On the topic of copyright infringers, Review Journal columnist Vin Suprymowicz is quoted as saying, “I hate them with a passion. Lawsuits? They should have their godd**ned hands cut off and nailed to the wall of City Hall,” and a threat from the publisher, Sherman Frederick, seems equally ominous: “I’m asking you nicely once again– don’t steal our content. Or, I promise you, you will meet my little friend called Righthaven.”

So the “little friend” trolled on, pressing for domain name forfeiture and $75,000 before even sending a DMCA takedown notice to the website owner. Even though many cases were dismissed on the basis of fair use, and the average settlement was probably $3,500 (much lower than the requested $75,000 but still a substantial sum for many hobby bloggers), Righthaven was tireless.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation stepped in to challenge the sham after Righthaven sued Democratic Underground (a political satire and commentary blog). EFF provided the Democratic Underground with lawyers, and, last Friday, these lawyers convinced a federal district court to unseal Righthaven and Stephens Media’s “Strategic Alliance Agreement.” The court found that, under the agreement, the Review Journal was pocketing half of the litigation proceeds and Righthaven’s lawsuits were resting on very shaky legal grounds. In its lawsuits, Righthaven had alleged that 1) it held the exclusive right to reproduce the work in question, 2) it held the exclusive right to prepare derivative works, 3) it held the exclusive right to distribute copies of the work, and 4) it held the exclusive right to publicly display the work. Unfortunately for Righthaven, according to the confidential agreement, the Las Vegas Review-Journal had not actually conferred any of these rights. It only gave Righthaven “the right to sue,” which simply does not exist.

The Court made the Agreement public, giving all other defendents Righthaven had sued a powerful legal weapon and, essentially, spelling the demise of the Righthaven troll.

This image taken from here.

We can celebrate the death of Righthaven, but we’ve still got many more trolls on the loose, and the court’s decision in this case hurt many of them. This case was special because Righthaven and the Las Vegas Review-Journal set up a shoddy legal document in which no intellectual property rights were actually transferred, and their operation only lasted as long as it did (a little over a year) because they managed to keep the document under wraps.

But other trolls are already or now will be smarter. As long as they actually own the rights (we’ve heard of sample troll Bridgeport Music), they can track down and extort the ignorant and, often, the innocent (fair users).

What policy could we enact to protect ourselves against this other kind of troll? To start with, I’d vote for making copyrights non-transferable (except in the case of works for hire and, possibly, for kin), though still licensable. To me, this seems reasonable. We’d still be incentivizing creators, and thus “promot[ing] the Progress of Science and useful Arts,” but we’d stop allowing non-creators to build entire business models on the exploitation of our IP system and the people that don’t understand it.

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