State Bar of Nevada reviewing grievance against Righthaven CEO

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The Nevada agency that regulates attorneys is looking into a grievance filed against the chief executive officer of Righthaven LLC, the Las Vegas copyright enforcement company that has sued at least 124 individuals and companies in North America since March over unauthorized online postings of Las Vegas Review-Journal stories.

The nature of the grievance hasn’t been disclosed except that someone filed it with the State Bar of Nevada against Righthaven CEO Steven Gibson, a Las Vegas attorney, and that it is related to Righthaven.

The State Bar calls complaints filed against attorneys by citizens or clients "grievances" so they’re not confused with "complaints" the State Bar may file against lawyers.

The grievance under investigation could relate to any number of allegations defense attorneys have made against Righthaven and its procedures — which are unusual for the newspaper industry — of detecting online infringements of Review-Journal material, obtaining copyrights to the infringed material and then suing over the retroactive infringements.

The allegations include suggestions Righthaven is a shakedown operation that hits bloggers, website operators, companies and nonprofits with frivolous lawsuits demanding $75,000 or $150,000 in damages and forfeiture of their domain names — but then quickly offers to settle, knowing costs to hire attorneys to fight the lawsuits are much higher than the proposed settlement amounts of a few thousand dollars.

Influential Righthaven foe the Electronic Frontier Foundation, for instance, has charged Righthaven is "just the latest group of lawyers to try to turn copyright litigation into a business model."

"What these lawyers have in common is that they seek to take advantage of copyright's draconian damages in order to bully Internet users into forking over money," an EFF report this month said.

Some attorneys have complained Righthaven is engaged in "barratry" -- the persistent incitement of litigation or stirring up legal disputes to drive up legal fees — since in many if not most cases it sues before trying to resolve its issues with the defendants out of court. Others have accused Righthaven of "copyright misuse" and of coming to lawsuits with "unclean hands."

Gibson and Righthaven have denied these charges in court papers and Righthaven’s partner in the lawsuit campaign, Review-Journal owner Stephens Media LLC, has said the lawsuits are necessary to stop rampant piracy of online Review-Journal stories, editorials and columns. The rest of the newspaper industry, however, generally asks that infringing material be taken down and/or replaced with links before resorting to litigation.

Stephens Media has participated in the litigation by investing in Righthaven and providing the copyrights at issue in the lawsuits.

A request for comment was placed Monday with Gibson, who besides running Righthaven is the managing partner of the Las Vegas office of the Detroit law firm Dickinson Wright PLLC.

The State Bar, which regulates the practice of law in the state under the direction of the Nevada Supreme Court, confirmed Monday it had received two grievances regarding Gibson and involving Righthaven.

One grievance was filed in June and one was filed in July.

Officials at the State Bar’s Office of Bar Counsel said they dismissed one of the complaints, but wouldn’t say why. A file has been opened on a second complaint, which will be forwarded to a three-member panel for screening for either dismissal or discipline.

"If we feel there’s enough probable cause to look at it further, we open a file," Bar spokesman Phil Pattee said in describing the process of reviewing and investigating grievances.

Opening a file and forwarding it to the screening panel is the standard procedure for cases in which Office of Bar Counsel attorneys feel there is probable cause for further review of the case.

The Office of Bar Counsel will make a recommendation to the screening panel, which meets confidentially. The Office of Bar Counsel has not yet decided what recommendation on Gibson to make to the screening panel, which likely will receive the case in the next few months.

The Office of Bar Counsel will notify Gibson of the grievance under review and he will have a chance to respond to the Office of Bar Counsel before the Office of Bar Counsel makes a recommendation to the screening committee.

If Gibson offers comments to the Office of Bar Counsel, those comments and evidence will be presented to the screening panel.

The screening panel, consisting of two attorneys and one lay person, can either close the case with no discipline or can impose discipline that could range from a "letter of caution" to a private reprimand and a fine of up to $1,000.

If the screening committee feels stiffer discipline is warranted, it can send the issue to a formal hearing panel that consists of four attorneys and one lay person.

Attorneys who are disciplined have the right to respond if a private reprimand is ordered; and are required to file an answer if the issue results in the filing of a complaint and a formal hearing.