Owners of websites: Learn from the Righthaven lawsuits!

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You may not have heard about Righthaven, LLC, a company that has filed 239 (and counting) lawsuits against alleged copyright infringers in less than a year. But if your small business or nonprofit organization has a website, you should pay attention.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Righthaven searches the internet for newspaper stories that have been copied and posted on websites, acquires the copyright to the stories, and then sues the person who posted the copied material. Righthaven seems to be an equal opportunity plaintiff, willing to sue just about anyone. So far it has taken on The Drudge Report, A Blog About History, Teapartier Sharon Angle, and the Democratic Party of Nevada.

Righthaven doesn’t restrict its targets to large organizations or famous names. Over thirty of the Righthaven lawsuits have been filed against individuals who posted on their websites the same copyrighted photograph from the Denver Post photo featuring a Transportation Security Administration officer patting down a passenger at Denver International Airport. While some of the defendants admit to copying the photo directly from the newspaper’s website, most of them claim they found the image somewhere else on the internet and had no idea the photo was copyrighted until they received notice of the lawsuit.

Not even charitable organizations get a free pass. Trauma Intervention Program of Southern Nevada Inc. (TIP), a Las Vegas non-profit organization, was sued by Righthaven for re-posting news articles to their website. TIP organizes volunteers and sends them to emergency scenes to comfort traumatized witnesses of accidents, crimes, fires, etc. In response to the lawsuit, TIP replaced the full length articles with links back to the newspaper’s website.

As you might imagine, there are some strong and differing opinions about Righthaven. Some of its critics refer to it as a “copyright troll,” and to the defendants in Righthaven lawsuits as its “victims.” On the other hand, some copyright owners, such as the Denver Post complain about widespread copyright infringement and see Righthaven as a means of enforcing their copyrights.

No matter how you feel about Righthaven, it’s important to guard against infringing a copyright that belongs to someone else. The first step is to assume that everything you find on the internet is protected by copyright. At one time, material subject to a copyright had to be marked as such, but that hasn’t been true for years. Although some materials are in the public domain, it’s far safer to assume that everything you find on the internet is copyrighted even if it does not explicitly say so! Unless you have received permission from the owner, never post copyrighted text, images, or videos on your website.

It’s true that under some circumstances, copyright law allows a limited amount of copying under the doctrine of fair use. The problem is that the boundary between fair use and infringement is very difficult to discern. To say it’s fuzzy is an understatement. Summarizing or paraphrasing the original story are better ways to provide the same information to your readers without potentially infringing someone else’s copyrighted material. Remember: a copyright protects the expression of an idea, not the idea itself.

But what about pictures? Fortunately there are sites on the Internet you can find images and obtain free or low-cost licenses to them. Stock photo websites allow you to use keywords to search for all different types of images. Take a look at our blog – almost every entry includes a photo, and we found all of them on stock photo sites! Well, all of them except the picture of the Indiana Statehouse. That photo demonstrates another way to avoid infringing someone else’s copyright. It’s an original photo taken by a member of our staff and is therefore copyrighted exclusively for the use of Harshman Ponist Smith & Rayl.

Remember, just because it is relatively simple for you to find a picture or news story online does not mean you should post it! There can be real consequences to copyright infringement, even when it is unintentional.

Please contact our firm if you have any questions or concerns about this topic or any other issue related to owning and operating a small business or nonprofit organization.

Michael Smith, Attorney at Law Emily Angel, Legal Assistant


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