Casual blogger hit with lawsuit

Last modified: Thursday, August 12, 2010
A Weare blogger is the target of a new copyright infringement lawsuit, one of dozens brought by a Nevada company looking to protect the intellectual property of newspapers.

Christopher Malley, who runs a discussion group and blog for first responders at EMTCity.com, was sued in federal court after a visitor to his website posted the entire contents of a Las Vegas Review-Journal article in a discussion forum.

The article about fire and emergency medical personnel in Las Vegas was intended to share information about the field, but it drew the ire of a for-profit company that owns the rights to certain stories produced by the Review-Journal.

It is similar to nearly 100 other suits brought by Righthaven LLC against other website owners who have posted Review-Journal articles, including the Nevada State Democratic Party and a couple who blog about cats, a review of federal court filings shows.

Malley's attorney, Concord-based Jeffrey Newman, said Righthaven is in the business of searching for potential trademark infringements, acquiring copyrights and then immediately filing lawsuits.

'It is really a collision of the new media and the old media,' he said.

He said the company isn't following the spirit of laws that are intended to give web hosts a chance to remove offending content before being sued. Newman said Righthaven did not ask his client to remove the article before filing a lawsuit.

'I believe that will have a chilling effect on the internet as a whole,' Newman said.

Righthaven CEO and attorney Steve Gibson said his company is an inevitable outgrowth of trying to protect the newspaper industry's intellectual property in the digital age. As the industry struggles to find a sustainable economic model, Gibson said the lawsuits are intended to protect his client's most valuable assets - information, photographs and opinions, which are all expensive to produce.

'(Part of) protecting one's copyright assets is that you're ultimately able to increase the value of those assets,' he said.

Citing a proprietary business model, Gibson declined to comment on Righthaven's arrangement with the Review-Journal and how the company searches for potential copyright-infringement cases.

'We are very, very much a technology company,' he said. 'We very much pride ourselves on our infringement search capabilities.'

He said Righthaven seeks to deter website owners from posting content that would divert online readers from a newspaper's website.

'There's value to your newspaper in stopping the diversion of that viewership,' he said.

Review-Journal Publisher Sherman Frederick used a May column to discuss the issue of copyright infringement. He compared it to parking a hypothetical 1967 Corvette in his front yard.

In the column, he said there'd be no problem if Corvette enthusiasts stood on the sidewalk to admire it.

'I like my '67 Vette and I keep in the front yard because I like people to see it,' he wrote. 'But then, you entered my front yard, climbed into the front seat and drove it away. I'm absolutely, 100% not OK with that. In fact, I'm calling the police and reporting that you stole my car. Every jury in the land would convict you.'

He said the analogy is the same for copyrighted material that the Review-Journal spends money on to generate.

'Some people think they can not only look at it, but also steal it. And they do,' he said. 'They essentially step into the front yard and drive that content away.'

In the column, Frederick said the newspaper 'grubstaked and contracted' with Righthaven, using a term coined after the California Gold Rush to describe fronting fees or supplies to a mining prospector or a person starting a business in return for a promised share of the profits.

A Review-Journal editor yesterday directed inquiries to the newspaper's attorney, who did not return a call.

Newman said the lawsuit could potentially mean thousands of dollars in damages for a retired first responder who was trying to foster a place for others to discuss emergency medical services.

Malley's website accepts donations to support web hosting but ends up losing money each year, Newman said.

'Had he been given notice, he would've pulled it down,' Newman said.

He said Righthaven is attempting to run up attorney's fees for the lawsuit, which is slated to be heard in Nevada, by expediting copyright filings and paying in-house lawyers handsomely.

'I was really taken aback by just the sheer volume of these cases, and they are going after everyone,' he said. 'If it works here, they can do it for other news services. It's mainly hit-and-runs on smaller people.'

Gibson said there is no legal requirement to provide website owners with written notice of a copyright infringement before filing a lawsuit.

In his column, Frederick had a message to website hosts.

'If you operate a website (liberal or otherwise) and don't know what 'fair use' is in the context of American copyright and Constitutional law, then I suggest you talk to your copyright lawyer and find out,' he said. 'Otherwise, at the risk of overusing this analogy, I'm callin' the police and gettin' my Vette back.'

(Trent Spiner can be reached at 369-3306 or tspiner@cmonitor.com.)