Have the Righthaven lawsuits affected the reputation of the Las Vegas Review-Journal?
“I don’t think the Righthaven controversy has affected the Review-Journal’s reputation. Readers might take notice if reporters at the paper got caught making up stories or, as in Britain, hacking into people’s voicemail, but copyright lawsuits are too arcane for the public to care about,” said Stephen Bates, assistant professor in the Hank Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies at UNLV.
“Just in terms of transparency, though, the R-J should have published an article on its Righthaven partnership before launching the lawsuits. And it should have explained that this aggressive approach to copyright infringement is almost unprecedented,” Bates said.
Steve Stern, a local public relations company owner who was sued and settled with Righthaven under undisclosed terms, sees things differently.
Stern has been a longtime source for the business desks at the R-J and its sister publications; as well as for VEGAS INC and the Las Vegas Sun.
“My view is unequivocal that the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s reputation in the community has been damaged by its precipitous copyright litigation. Virtually all of those I know who have followed this issue, both in Las Vegas and outside of our city, are remarkably perplexed by these lawsuits, which have cost not only the defendants, many of whom live here, financially, but also the taxpayers of the state,” Stern said.
“My personal view is that Sherman Frederick was seeking a new, quick revenue stream and thought this might be it; rather than seeking more creative ways to present the news or even charging for online subscriptions,” Stern said.
“The most telling issue about these lawsuits is that the nation’s major newspapers, as well as others in markets equal to ours, aren’t doing this sort of thing. One has to ask the question: What’s the motivation? There seems not to be an answer other than an extraordinarily foolish business decision to develop revenue in a manner unheard of in the newspaper industry. Moreover, the R-J itself has done nothing to mitigate ‘copyright violations,’ save initiate litigation,” Stern said.
Another Righthaven defendant, Ron Futrell, agrees with Stern.
A longtime television journalist who now works in public relations, Futrell says he was sued after merely posting portions of R-J stories with links to the R-J as a shout-out for the good work of his friends.
Futrell has an attorney and is fighting Righthaven. He says he turned down settlement offers that he says started in the $5,000-$8,000 range and were finally adjusted downward to $1,500.
“I told Gibson that I wouldn’t pay him $50,” Futrell said.
“It’s clear that this was foremost about business,” Futrell said. “I have no intention of paying. I do know people who have paid the ransom.”
Futrell said he’s heard the talk about Righthaven defendants potentially hitting Righthaven with their own lawsuit to recover their expenses, and said it’s something he’d consider joining.
Futrell said that “in a heartbeat” he would have removed the R-J content if he had been asked to do so, but “they went nuclear out of the box.”
“It’s like sending a stealth fighter after what may be a parking ticket,” he said.
What has Righthaven accomplished with its 275 lawsuits?
It’s clearly accomplished one of its stated goals of addressing copyright infringements as it spreads fear throughout the Internet. Numerous website operators throughout the country have stopped posting certain material and have deleted scores of newspaper stories from their sites—not just Review-Journal stories—for fear of getting hit with a Righthaven-type lawsuit.
“It had a real crushing effect on what we’re doing,” said Sharon Sanders in Winter Park, FL.
Sanders used to post news stories about flu clinics nationwide on her nonprofit website FluTrackers.com. This was done as a public service so people would know where to get shots. Sanders hit the brakes on the posting of such material after learning of Righthaven and its $150,000 lawsuit damage demands.
“It’s really intimidating. It’s not like small claims court,” she said.
Another Righthaven accomplishment, ironically, is to reduce legal protections for news content. In their Righthaven fair use rulings, judges said a Las Vegas real estate agent was protected by fair use in posting part of an R-J story on his commercial website, an Oregon nonprofit was permitted to post an entire R-J story on its site and a Kentucky man was permitted to post an entire R-J column on a sports betting website’s message board. Since the Righthaven lawsuits seem to be backfiring and reducing copyright protection for content producers, it’s not surprising Righthaven hasn’t signed up more newspapers as lawsuit partners, said David Ardia, director of the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard University.
The center connects Righthaven defendants with attorneys and Righthaven lawsuits regularly show up in its database of threats to free speech.
“There’s a sort of ambivalence. They’re (newspapers) not sure whether it’s in their best interests to push these types of lawsuits,” Ardia said.