After 200 Lawsuits Against Sites, Righthaven Targets Online Commenters

So far, the copyright-enforcement venture Righthaven has only made a few thousand dollars per settlement with its publisher targets, according to news reports. To make any real money, Righthaven will have to widen its sights. With its latest move, it appears to be doing just that. Atter suing mostly mom-and-pop web publishers — more than 200 blogs and web sites in all in its 10 months in business — Righthaven last week began suing mere commenters, including Wayne Hoehn, a user who posted an op-ed article at (the No. 1 handicapping forum on the web.) Remarkably, MadJack Sports itself was the subject of an earlier Righthaven lawsuit. The website settled the allegations.

The article that Hoehn allegedly copied was an op-ed column called “It’s the pensions, stupid,” by Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist and former publisher Sherman Frederick. The R-J was Righthaven’s initial client when the company started suing web sites and blogs last year, and the newspaper owns part of Righthaven as well. Frederick, who was a big booster of the Righthaven project when it started, stepped aside as publisher in November, but still writes a column for the R-J.

The same day, Righthaven sued James Higgins, who posted another apparently copied R-J story into a Google (NSDQ: GOOG) Groups news list. These two suits appear to be the first Righthaven suits against individual who don’t own their own websites.

Pursuing such defendants suggests a certain desperation by Righthaven. Even when the record companies sued thousands of individual users, they at least had a believable argument that digital piracy was hurting music sales. Righthaven’s argument that re-posting text articles does similar harm to newspaper companies-while a debatable and controversial point-at least has some logic to it when the suits are against online publishers. To suggest that online commenters are hurting the newspaper industry seems like a much bigger leap of faith.

Stretch though it may be, it’s certainly possible that individual posters might be frightened into paying a few thousand dollars in settlement money to avoid litigation and a heavier penalty. Dozens of web sites have already settled with Righthaven, generally for $5,000 or less, according to the Las Vegas Sun.

Righthaven didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment, but the company’s outside lawyer in these cases, Shawn Mangano, noted that the piece Hoehn is alleged to have copied is an op-ed, not a news article. “A lot of Righthaven suits have involved copyrighted works that defendants argued were primarily factual in nature,” Mangano said. “You have no such argument with an op-ed piece. We’re not just reporting on a shooting.” As to why Righthaven had decided to pursue posters, Mangano said: “I’m not privy to that analysis, and if I were, it would be privileged.”

»  Righthaven v. Hoehn Complaint [PDF]
»  Righthaven v. Higgins Complaint [PDF]