Texas woman emerges as vocal critic of copyright lawsuit firm

Colleen Lynn is an admitted copyright infringer — at least by the standards of Las Vegas newspaper copyright enforcement company Righthaven LLC.

The Austin, Texas, woman hasn’t been sued by Righthaven, but in recent weeks she has emerged as one of the most vocal behind-the-scenes critics of Righthaven’s lawsuit campaign in which at least 117 bloggers and website operators have been hit with lawsuits since March.

Most defendants say they were sued without warning or even a request to take down the material at issue.

These lawsuits target people and companies that Righthaven says infringed on copyrights to Las Vegas Review-Journal material by re-posting all or portions of stories, columns and editorials. In some cases, the suits say the material was posted not by website operators but by message-board users.

After learning about Rightaven in early August, Lynn anonymously set up the website righthavenvictims.blogspot.com, one of at least five online sites where Righthaven defendants find and share information to help each other.

At first, Lynn didn’t want anyone to know she was behind the anti-Righthaven site. She initially was afraid of being sued by Righthaven and scrambled to remove from her website Review-Journal stories about dogs attacking and killing two children in the Las Vegas area in 2008.

Now, Lynn is ready to go on the record.

Archiving stories and news photos about dog maulings from around the country is crucial to the mission of Lynn’s group DogsBite.org, which Lynn started in October 2007.

She says such archives of newspaper stories from around the country are also crucial in helping countless other nonprofits of all types carry out their missions.

DogsBite.org was launched three months after a leashed pit bull attacked Lynn and nearly severed her arm as she tried to jog past the animal and its handler on a street in her former hometown of Seattle.

DogsBite.org promotes banning the breeding of pit bulls, mandatory spaying and neutering of the dogs, requiring pit bulls to be implanted with microchip identification devices, requiring pit bull owners to carry at least $300,000 in liability insurance and prohibiting felons from owning pit bulls.

“I haven’t been able to think all day upon reading your series of Righthaven articles (I just learned today about this horrific injustice),” Lynn told the Las Vegas Sun in an e-mail Aug. 4, the day she found out about Righthaven.

She found out about Righthaven, ironically, through a Google “attack dog” alert — the Sun had used the “attack dog” analogy in describing Righthaven as opposed to the “watchdog” role most newspapers play in enforcing copyright policies.

“We are constantly under the threat of lawsuits by ‘select’ and wealthy pit bull factions,” Lynn wrote. “I just wanted to let you know the stark terror that filled my bones for the past 12 hours. Obviously the fear is that jackass (Righthaven) will get new clients.”

In recent weeks, Lynn has talked with Righthaven defendants about how Righthaven can be dealt with in and out of court.

One solution that Lynn may pursue was offered by the online privacy and freedom of speech organization Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is working to help Righthaven defendants and plans to intervene in court against the Las Vegas company.

That solution is to get Congress to reduce what the EFF calls “extraordinary statutory damages” plaintiffs may demand in copyright suits.

These damage claims — typically $75,000 or $150,000 by Righthaven — are for damages that don’t involve economic loss to Righthaven.

Rather, they are in place to deter copyright infringement, though critics doubt whether the types of infringements Righthaven typically sues over will yield judgments by judges or juries anywhere close to $75,000 or $150,000.

Critics say Righthaven’s statutory damage demands, as well as its demands that defendants’ website domain names be forfeited to Righthaven, serve to intimidate defendants into quickly settling as the proposed settlement amounts — typically $7,500 or less — are far lower than legal costs to fight Righthaven.

Righthaven and the Review-Journal, however, insist their lawsuit campaign is not about collecting damages but instead is about stopping rampant piracy of Review-Journal news content.

“Righthaven LLC vigorously enforces the copyrighted work of Review-Journal reporters, columnists and editors,” Mark Hinueber, R-J vice president and general counsel, said in an R-J story Saturday after Righthaven sued Senate candidate Sharron Angle. “We expect everyone to comply with the copyright laws of the United States. It is never appropriate to utilize entire Review-Journal articles or columns without prior, express written permission of the newspaper.”

Lynn, however, said reasonable access to information documented by news organizations over the years is crucial to the missions of nonprofits.

Asked about assertions by the Review-Journal that special-interest websites like hers have been diverting readers and revenue from newspaper websites, Lynn said: “I doubt our documenting the deaths of 30 people a year (by dog attacks) is hurting newspapers’ revenue.”

Online sharing of newspaper stories has been common for more than a decade and until Righthaven came along, few newspapers seemed to object to postings at nonprofit and special-interest websites.

These sites don’t compete directly with newspapers for general news specific to each newspaper’s geographic market.

“It never dawned on me” to seek permission before posting news stories documenting dog attacks, Lynn said. “I’m not a journalist.”

Now, she’s using an archiving tool called WebCite, which preserves cited webpages and websites and that Lynn hopes doesn’t run afoul of Righthaven.

In the meantime, Lynn continues to work behind the scenes to help individuals and groups sued by Righthaven and is also critical of the Review-Journal’s policy of allowing its material to be used online in the form of just the first paragraph and a link to the R-J website.

“Abiding by the Review-Journal’s first-paragraph policy would be extremely damaging and demoralizing for non-profits, volunteer groups and other website operators that are dedicated to impacting public policy in an effort to create a better future for all Americans. The Review-Journal’s current policy and partnership with Righthaven seeks to destroy the very fiber of the Internet’s underpinnings too: The freedom of information, education and exchange of ideas. Their ‘sue the audience’ tactic does little more than ruin organizations and lives, all for the gain of a dirty dollar,” Lynn said.

“The Review-Journal’s requirements for non-profits and grassroots organizations that are part of a national debate to change public policy are wholly unreasonable. To start, in 60 days that link may be invalid, sending a user to an error page. Different types of articles are placed into archives at different times — each news organization varies. When this occurs, that URL often changes. Not only can a user then not access the article, he or she may not even know to do a separate search within the site’s archives. The person merely sees an error message: ‘This article is no longer available,’” she said. “Secondly, the first paragraph of a news article is usually one to two sentences in length and summarizes the article. The meat of the article — a startling quote, contradiction, irony, powerful or poor use of logic, revealing background details, statistical data and more — is always somewhere in the middle.”

She also highlighted the factors of legitimacy and impartiality that news stories bring to public debates

“Members of the U.S. media have far greater access to, and the knowledge of how to attain, source data materials than citizens and social change groups do,” she said. “How can any person or group effectively educate the public and lawmakers without providing access to historical and past news stories that ‘actualize’ and explain our cause written by seasoned journalists?”

Lynn noted that Rightaven in some cases has sued Review-Journal sources and said: “DogsBite.org fears the day when a news agency sues us for copyright infringement after that same group quoted data from one of our freely-available dog bite fatality statistics.”

Lynn isn’t alone among nonprofits in arguing about the importance of their online news databases — and how the news industry didn’t object to these news collections until Righthaven started filing its lawsuits.

The operator of the nonprofit website www.windaction.org (covering environmental problems with wind energy), Lisa Linowes, publishes it from her home in New Hampshire. She, like many defendants, was surprised to be sued by Righthaven.

“At the time of the posting of the article, I did not believe that I infringed on anyone’s copyright. One reason for not believing that the posting of the article would infringe on anyone’s copyright is that, over the past five years, we have posted somewhere between 28,000 and 29,000 articles on the passive, noncommercial website and we have never been subject to any lawsuit for copyright infringement for any of those articles until now,” Linowes said in court papers. “Nor am I aware of any similar passive noncommercial website that has been sued for copyright infringement merely for posting news articles from around the United States and the rest of the world, concerning a matter of public policy and interest.”

A July 27 post by the Reason Foundation noted the Idaho-based The Armed Citizen responded to a Righthaven lawsuit by closing access to its extensive collection of news stories about citizens using weapons in self defense.

“Since 2003, Clayton Cramer, an author and historian who has written numerous books on the right to keep and bear arms and the evolution of America’s gun culture, has edited a website that is currently called The Armed Citizen. With the help of another contributor, David Burnett, Cramer uses the site as a repository for newspaper articles that document instances where firearms owners use their weapons in self-defense. Over the years, the pair had posted excerpts and complete text of approximately 4,700 articles, and in doing so, they created a unique and useful archive for researchers, activists, and people who simply enjoy feel-good tales of homeowners protecting themselves and their property from intruders and assailants by any means necessary,” the Reason story said.

“In all that time, they say, they’d never received a single request from a copyright owner to remove an article. Last week, however, Cramer and Burnett were caught off-guard by a figure who aims to establish himself as the new sheriff in the lawless wilds of cyberspace. He was packing a .36-caliber copyright infringement lawsuit and he didn’t bother with a warning shot. Instead, Cramer and Burnett only learned they were being sued after a reporter from the Las Vegas Sun contacted them about the case,” Reason noted.

A similar result was seen after a Righthaven lawsuit against the Hepatitis C Support Project in San Francisco. Its website www.hcvadvocate.org now says: “The publication of the (site’s) Weekly News Review has been suspended until further notice due to litigation.”