Righthaven CEO defends company during roundtable discussion

Steven Gibson is CEO of Righthaven, which buys copyrights from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, then sues people who have violated those copyrights.

American legal and media insiders seem to agree the unauthorized online re-posting of newspaper content is an issue.

Some agree it’s a problem.

But uncertainties abound in quantifying how it may be affecting newspaper revenue.

The issue was discussed Wednesday during a telephone roundtable sponsored by the international law firm Bryan Cave.

Participating were Barbara Wall, vice president and senior associate general counsel at Gannett Co., the nation’s largest newspaper company; Eric Goldman, copyright scholar and associate professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law; and Steven Gibson, CEO at Las Vegas copyright enforcement company Righthaven LLC.

The topic: “Can Large-Scale Copyright Enforcement Save the Newspaper Business?”

Gibson said Righthaven — best known for filing at least 117 copyright infringement lawsuits since March, generally without warning, over Las Vegas

Review-Journal material — is offering a viable solution to what he called the problem of online infringements.

Gibson said the lawsuits with their stiff claims for statutory damages — damages in which economic loss need not be shown — can serve as a deterrent to infringements. Righthaven typically seeks $75,000 or $150,000 in its lawsuits.

This approach, he said, is preferable to newspapers having to hire hundreds of people to send millions of takedown notices to infringers.

But Gibson said there’s more to Righthaven than its lawsuits. The Las Vegas startup generally wants to help copyright owners monetize — or derive value from — their copyrights over time and may get involved in licensing arrangements.

“I don’t want Righthaven to be seen as a company only finding infringements and filing lawsuits,” Gibson said.

Gibson dismissed a suggestion from Goldman that in many of its lawsuits, Righthaven seemed to be suing people who thought they were friends of the Review-Journal’s.

Copyright infringement “is an unfriendly act,” Gibson said.

Gibson and Goldman traded arguments during the call over whether unauthorized online postings of newspaper material help, or hurt, newspapers.

In most of the Righthaven lawsuits, the defendants are special-interest websites or blogsites. Righthaven is not suing the Review-Journal’s direct general news competitors in Las Vegas and it’s not suing news aggregators like Google and Yahoo.

Typical Righthaven defendants are political bloggers, sports betting websites and super-specialized sites like that of a former prosecutor who documents “no-body” murder prosecutions — murders in which the victim’s body hasn’t been located.

Goldman noted viewers of a re-posted newspaper story on a special-interest website likely otherwise would never have seen the story since they previously had no interest in going to the source newspaper website for news.

In this instance, the unauthorized re-posting, or infringement, may drive traffic to and bring publicity to the source newspaper, particularly with a link.

Gibson, however, disputed whether these types of postings actually drive traffic to source newspapers.

He noted someone doing a Google search for a specific story may be directed to an infringing version of the story rather than the source newspaper.

Righthaven has argued in its lawsuits that copyright infringement of the type it sues over has harmed the newspaper industry’s finances.

But no one, including Righthaven and including Gibson on Wednesday’s call, has produced hard data on how these types of infringements have affected newspaper finances.

Wall said that while Gannett has no plans to start suing infringers on a mass basis, unauthorized use of newspaper content online is a problem that the industry needs to find a joint solution for.

She noted Gannett incurs substantial costs in generating news. “Giving it away for free is not a sustainable business model,” Wall said.

While Gibson frequently says newspapers would have to hire large staffs to deal with all copyright infringers by sending them takedown notices, Wall said that task is currently handled by editors already in place at Gannett properties around the country.

Having editors contact infringers and demand or request material be taken down and/or be replaced with links is a common practice in the newspaper industry.

It’s how the Las Vegas Sun deals with infringement, as well as other papers such as the Seattle Times.

The journalism site Poynter Online reported Aug. 31: “Executives at other newspapers say take-down notices can easily resolve most copyright conflicts without litigation.

“Generally we don’t even do it through lawyers,” Seattle Times Executive Editor David Boardman, an officer of the American Society of News Editors, told Poynter Online. “Normally all it takes is a call or note or e-mail or letter to somebody just saying, ‘Hey, you’re in violation of our copyright. Please take it down.’ More often than not, they do.”