Nearly two years ago, in a Legal Pulse post and a WLF Legal Opinion Letter, we discussed the strong judicial response to the copyright litigation scheme pursued by a company called Righthaven LLC. Righthaven was created at the behest of newspaper-owning media company Stephens Media as a vehicle to sue bloggers and other online information outlets which had reprinted articles originally published in Stephens’ newspapers. Thankfully rather than pay the copyright troll’s “toll,” several bloggers refused and Righthaven sued them.
Federal District Judge Philip Pro dismissed Righthaven’s suit for two reasons. First, because the agreement between Stephens Media and Righthaven assigned only the right to sue potential copyright infringers, Righthaven did not have the exclusive rights needed to possess standing to sue. Second, the bloggers’ reprinting of articles constituted fair use under federal law. Several days after this ruling, Judge Pro ruled that Righthaven had to pay $34,000 in attorneys’ fees. In a separate but related case, a federal judge sanctioned Righthaven $5,000 for failing to disclose its financial ties to Stephens Media.
Apparently not embracing the modified maxim “it’s time to quit while you’re behind,” Righthaven decided to spend more money on legal fees and appealed its loss to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
In an appropriately terse opinion yesterday, the Ninth Circuit panel unanimously affirmed Judge Pro on the issue of standing. Circuit Judge Clifton initiated his opinion with a reference to an Abraham Lincoln story about a lawyer who tried to “establish that a calf had five legs by calling its leg a tail.” As Lincoln observed, “calling a tail a leg does not make it so.” Similarly, just because Righthaven called itself a copyright owner does not mean it in fact is.
The court essentially went on to restate the very clear legal standards relied upon by District Judge Pro. Regretfully for bloggers and other online information providers, the court vacated the portion of Judge Pro’s ruling that the reprinting activity constituted fair use, since the case could be dismissed on procedural grounds.