Science fiction fans may face flood of copyright lawsuits

There is a new copyright cop in town and he means business. If you have been posting news stories on your blog or forum, you need to stop doing that — and it would probably be a good idea to go back and clean up your sites as soon as possible.

Earlier this year a company named Righthaven LLC began buying the rights to newspaper stories that have been copied without authorization on Websites and filing lawsuits against those sites’ operators for copyright infringement. Righthaven LLC is reportedly seeking around $75,000 in damages per infringement.

Through the years many science fiction fans have republished copyright material on their Websites in the misguided belief that there are so many of us the chances of being caught are slim. The RIAA went after file sharing network users and filed thousands of lawsuits. The MPAA is going after bit torrent network users who share movies and TV shows online (to date more than 20,000 such lawsuits have been filed so far).

Righthaven LLC is acting like a collection agency. Some collection agencies buy up “charged off” debts from banks for as little as 1% and seek to collect the full amount of the debts. They keep any payments the consumers make. Righthaven’s business model works in much the same way. They are only buying the rights to newspaper articles that they have already documented as being copied without permission.

This narrows the odds of their finding you considerably. Furthermore, except where third-parties publish protected content on your site without your knowledge, you have absolutely no legal protection against these kinds of lawsuits. You WILL lose and you MUST pay (or live with a judgement that will prevent you from buying a house, a new car, obtaining credit cards, or participating in other consumer debt plans).

Forum operators may be entitled to protection under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act but according to reports I have read Righthaven appears to be ignoring the DMCA and just filing lawsuits anyway. In order to win the suit you have to hire an attorney, which will cost several thousand dollars at the least.

Righthaven is betting that most people will settle out of court for $1500 to $3500, and apparently that has been the pattern so far. Their incentive — their business model — calls for them to file as many lawsuits as possible in order to collect as many out-of-court settlements as possible.

So there is no protection for you in the sheer weight of numbers. Righthaven (and the companies sure to follow in their footsteps) are not looking for any specific trees in the forest — they are going after the entire forest. Millions of Websites have infringed newspaper copyrights so the potential for financial reward is HUGE. Righthaven can keep going for years.

You do NOT want to be their next target. If you have been publishing newspaper articles on your Websites you should take action to clean them up immediately. Under “fair use” doctrine it’s usually deemed acceptable to publish a few sentences from a copyrighted work and provide a link to the original.

At SF-Fandom we have asked our members to follow that policy for years, but I have nonetheless posted a reminder discussion titled Before You Post That News Story On Your Site because I don’t want to see my online friends get sued (and I’d prefer not to have to deal with Righthaven myself).

If I feel I’m protected under the DMCA I WILL fight any lawsuit (and countersue for damages) but that’s not an option most of you would have to consider. This is not a battle worth fighting — it’s not a war that can be won.

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