Civil lawsuits: Newspapers’ new revenue stream?

A recent article in Wired magazine describes a new revenue source for at least one newspaper—legal settlements and court-awarded fines levied against websites that use copyrighted news stories illegally.

The article describes how Steve Gibson, founder of Las Vegas-based “Righthaven,” is going after websites that have allegedly stolen content from his first and only client to date, the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Under the federal Copyright Act, violators can be fined up to $150,000 per infringement, according to the article, and Gibson hopes the potential for high fines will force quick settlements.

This is the latest chapter in an effort by copyright holders to prevent unauthorized sharing of their content over the Internet. Previous efforts by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to stop illegal music sharing via torrent sites and other means met with limited success and generated a lot of negative publicity for the music industry. Artists protested, too—Radiohead released a new album for free online, allowing downloaders the option to pay whatever they felt to be a fair amount.

Of course, writers and the media publications for which they write need to be able to protect their investment. This is an increasingly difficult thing to do in the digital age for several reasons. First, it’s simply hard to find copyright violators due to the sheer mass of the Internet. With millions of websites out there, finding someone who has reposted a news article on their website is like finding a canoe in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Second, the nature of today’s Internet encourages sharing of information. The most popular websites, such as Facebook and MySpace, bank on it, as do news aggregators like Google and Yahoo!. And third, it’s questionable whether or not media outlets would even want to go after alleged violators. In cyberspace, there are few scoops. If someone doesn’t want to (or can’t) read a news story on a certain website, odds are they can find the same story, or a similar one, somewhere else. Media outlets are almost forced to sacrifice control of their content just to get eyeballs on their website in the hopes that visitors click on their ads.

Generally, fair use allows the news media (including bloggers) to quote from and source copyrighted material, if it’s their intent to report on it, critique it, or parody it. My advice—feel free to continue to quote from and cite copyrighted news sources for these purposes. But don’t reproduce entire articles on your websites or in publications—include a link instead. And always refer back to the original source. It’s my opinion that the original news source will welcome the free publicity and the website traffic that your referral may generate.

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