Why We Won’t Link To Denver Post, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Salt Lake Tribune, and Several Others
May 2nd, 2011
The basic mode of internet debate and information sharing is pretty simple. People read things they find interesting, and they post what they find onto blogs and other web outlets for others to read and comment on. Quoting is an integral part of that process — that and linking; hyperlinks are the defining feature of the world wide web. Quoting and linking, as the Electronic Freedom Foundation observes, allows online discussions to thrive by “showing others the original text before adding a commentary or response. Accurate quoting is a virtue of Internet discussion that can minimize mischarcterization and support progress in a debate.”
This business of quoting and linking, which is a far more accurate way of sharing information than what might pass for social media in previous decades — picture your grandfather swapping stories at the barbershop or your mother at the hairdressers — has dramatically changed the way we access information in the 21st century.
Newspaper chains, in particular, have struggled mightily with this changing environment, and not altogether successfully. Some journalists have come to view bloggers as parasites. They say bloggers wouldn’t exist without the reporting done at newspapers. I think that is an exaggeration. At BTB, we do try to provide our own analysis and, in some cases stories, which are independent from what we find in the news media. But to be certain, probably about 90% of what we post has as its origin a story we find published in a newspaper, television, radio, or other online news organizations. And when we find those stories, we provide direct quotes (often in the form of blockquotes) with links back to the where we found it.
We believe that this practice is important. By providing blockquotes, we let the source material speak for itself without any inadvertent inaccuracies or biases which may creep in if we were to paraphrase it. And by providing links, we allow you, the reader, to click through for more information. Of course, we cannot copy the source material in its entirety, nor can we copy major portions of it. That would violate copyright laws, which is a very serious issue. But copyright laws do allow us to copy small portions of source material for commentary and discussion purposes.
As I said, copyright laws — or more specifically, copyright lawsuits — are serious business. And now, three newspaper chains have discovered that filing copyright lawsuits can become yet another profit center. The problem is, their definition of copyright infringement not only contradicts copyright law, but also poses a serious threat to bloggers and other online outlets everywhere.
Righthaven LLC is a copyright holding company which acquires “rights” to newspaper content after finding the content published on other web sites without permission, and files lawsuits against those web site. Righhaven was created as a partnership with Stephens Media, publisher of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and their business model rests entirely on suing web site owners and operators for extravagant “damages” as a shakedown exercise. (“Rights” are in quotes, because, contrary to what is required under copyright law, Righthaven doesn’t actually acquire any legitimate copyright “rights,” which is yet another problem with their business model.) Two other newspaper chains, WEHCO Media and Media News Group have entered into agreements with Righthaven to split the profits from lawsuits stemming from their respective newspapers’ contents.
The three newspaper chains partnering with Righthaven represent some very important voices in the newspaper industry, including the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Denver Post, Salt Lake Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, Oakland Tribune, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Detroit News, El Paso Times, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and Charleston Daily Mail.
What distinguishes Righthaven’s practices from more reasonable measures against copyright infringement is that Righthaven has never issued a takedown notice to any of their targeted web sites. Instead, the first inkling a web site owner has that there is something wrong is when he or she receives a summons announcing that a lawsuit has been filed in federal court. There is no warning whatsoever. And Righthaven’s demands are excessive: $150,000 for a single infringement and the surrendering of the domain name to Righthaven. That last demand, which has no basis in copyright law whatsoever, is the hammer Righthaven uses to extort money from some of the more significant web sites. Major victims include the Drudge Report, Democratic Underground, Free Republic, and Raw Story Media. Imagine if they had been forced to surrender their domain names. They would immediately cease to exist.
Righthaven’s tactics seem to be working. With the exception of Democratic Underground, the majors have found it cheaper and safer to safeguard their most precious property — their domain names — by paying thousands of dollars in undisclosed settlements — even when copyright law is on their side under what’s known as “Fair Use.” Those settlements are in addition to lawyer fees they’ve paid to defend themselves in the process. In other words, it doesn’t matter whether Righthaven has the law on their side. What matters is that merely by filing a claim in Federal court, Righthaven’s target is already out several thousands of dollars right out of the gate.
But Righthaven doesn’t go after just big name web sites. They’ve targeted hundreds of much smaller bloggers and web site operators in their shakedown operation. Most of these victims are not professionals, but run their web sites either out of personal passion or as a hobby. They, too, have been tapped for undisclosed thousands of dollars, all because they copied more than a couple of paragraphs or a photo. One blogger was an autistic teen. He’s on disability due to brittle diabetes requiring around-the-clock care. Another was a Gulf War veteran nurse who wrote about Gulf War illnesses and veterans issues. Most recently, Pam’s House Blend was hit with a drive-by lawsuit which, according to Pam Spaulding, has effectively bankrupted the web site.
While Righthaven hasn’t directly threatened BTB, the existential threat to this web site remains. Like everyone else, we scour the web for news and content that we believe will be of interest to our readers. As part of that effort, we never copy entire articles, but we do follow the common practice of excerpting blockquotes from the articles we find. This practice is in full compliance with U.S. copyright laws. But as I said, the fact that copyright laws are on our side is irrelevant. If Righthaven were to lodge a bogus complaint in Federal court against us, that act alone would be financially catastrophic.
Let me be clear: we do take copyrights seriously. We have issued informal takedown notices to other web sites that have posted our content illegally, and we’ve had satisfactory results with that approach — an approach that Righthaven obviously finds unprofitable. We fully accept the principles of copyright ownership, and we strive always to comply with the law. But sometimes mistakes happen. We may use a photo from another web site without knowing that the photo originally came from somewhere else. (In fact, that’s exactly what happened to Pam Spaulding.) Whenever we are made aware of a copyright issue, we will always make every effort to address the problem while maintaining our rights within the Fair Use parameters of copyright law. But what we cannot accept is Righthaven’s approach of going straight for litigation and threatening the very existence of its targeted websites through the forcible transfer of victims’ domain names.
And so to protect ourselves and this web site, we will no longer cite any content from Denver Post, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Salt Lake Tribune, or any of the other news sources listed here. There will be no links, no blockquotes, nothing. For the most part, it will be as if these sources simply don’t exist.
But if it happens that, for example, the Denver Post has an exclusive story that no one else has, we will do what the Associated Press does whenever the New York Times breaks a story. We will write about the story by paraphrasing the Post’s article, but we will not quote from it or provide a link to it — just like the Associated Press does. There will be however one tweak from standard AP practice: we will provide a link, but it will be to an explanation as to why there is no link. It will look something like this:
“The Denver Post (no link) reports blah, blah, blah…”
I’m not laboring under the delusion that these vast media empires will suddenly collapse due to a lack of links from BTB. This is not an economic boycott to bring these behemoths to their knees. Nor are we doing this in anticipation of starting a movement of other web operators to avoid these media outlets. Whether others follow in our footsteps will be their decision. We’re taking this step solely as an attempt at ensuring BTB’s continued existence.
We put in many hours for this web site, hours that we scrounge together whenever we can because we all have full-time jobs elsewhere. We don’t get paid for the work we do on BTB, but the work has nevertheless been rewarding in other ways. One reader introduced himself to me at an ex-gay survivor’s conference a few years ago by saying, “You’re the reason I finally found the courage to come out.” And just three weeks ago, I received an email from a reader in Africa who was responding to this post about George Oundo, who had been paid by Ugandan pastors to pose as “ex-gay.” This reader describes himself as an isolated gay man who is too afraid to connect with others in the local gay community. He wrote:
On an internal level, for many years I thought the ex-gay movement had tons of appeal and merit, especially during periods of heartbreak and during periods of rejection from anti-gay society, which includes almost all Ugandans and religious people I know. I first found BTB years ago when I was Googling “ex-gay” because, (like I still do sometimes) I was so tired of all the hate, the pressure and the loneliness which are often erroneously attributed to being gay. When I found BTB on Google, Dan Gonzales’ articles and videos helped me understand the ex-gay movement a lot better. But even with that progress, it’s a daily uphill battle just trying not to regress in hostile environments.
These readers are why we put in the many hours that we do for this web site. This work is too critical for too many people to allow it to fall victim to greed from the Denver Post and Las Vegas Review-Journal and others. With these policy changes, it is our aim to remain a clear and reliable voice for the LGBT community worldwide, to the best of our meager ability and for a long time to come.