Sherm Frederick is right.
Stew in that for a moment. I know, it’s hard to digest. You can’t imagine how difficult it is for me to write. But the publisher of the Review-Journal and president of Stephens Media has hit on something that may, in fact, help clean up the freewheeling world of Internet intellectual property theft.
Frederick has tasked a company called Righthaven to file dozens of lawsuits against website owners who lift and post entire or huge passages of R-J stories without authorization. Righthaven buys the copyright from Stephens Media, then pursues damages. While some site proprietors claim all they did was link to the R-J’s website, most of the evidence in court filings indicate they reproduced entire articles.
That, you see, is called stealing. And while those who dislike the R-J’s editorial views or feel personally assaulted are crying that they’re Davids being extorted by Goliath, the fact is I’ve got no more right to steal from Walmart than I do from your sister’s crafts shop.
This article you’re reading has a value. I’ve set a price, the Weekly has bought it, and they’re going to attempt to make a profit off it. I didn’t do it for free and this publication didn’t print the money with which they’re paying me. It’s a business, and when someone out there on the Web cuts and pastes it wholesale so people can read it elsewhere, that robs this publication’s website of eyeballs that make its advertising more valuable.
Some of my colleagues disagree. They believe the R-J should just be flattered by being ripped off, that they should regard it as a loss-leader that will, perhaps, encourage folks who find, say, a piece on Oscar Goodman on former KTNV anchor Ron Futrell’s website, to head to the R-J site for other things.
That’s just idiotic, and maybe I can see that more clearly because, as an entrepreneur accustomed to selling my wares, I’m more acutely aware of how money is made in journalism. We all see links every day to interesting stories on sites we never heard of; if we care, we go read it, but we almost never go back.
This sort of theft—which is different than if someone posts pieces of a story to comment on it, known as fair use—occurs constantly. Most publications don’t have the time or resources to go after it, but Frederick obviously hit on an ingenious idea: Let someone else do it and affix a profit motive to their participation. Stephens Media has outsourced enforcement of a serious problem ... for nothing! And they’ve avoided accusations of bias by going after sites of every ideological ilk, from TheArmedCitizen.com to the Nevada Democratic Party.
Righthaven hasn’t executed flawlessly. It must remember it works for a newspaper with journalists who have important source relationships. The Las Vegas Advisor was sued for posting an R-J report on the LVA’s annual show ticket price survey. Technically, LVA shouldn’t have posted it, but the story contained a scoop delivered to the paper by LVA. You think LVA’s going to hand that scoop to the R-J next time?
And some sites sued do make Righthaven look churlish, most notably a cat blog. There’s a difference between some animal hobbyist and, say, a former TV anchor who ought to know better.
So here’s the standard Righthaven ought to consider applying: If a grown man gets caught stealing pencils at Walmart, the store scares the hell out of him and presses charges. If a little girl does it, the store scares the hell out of her and, usually, lets her go.
Offenders think they deserve a polite warning, but I’m all for scaring the hell out of them. The thing that’s killing the media is the devaluation of its assets, something in which it is a willing participant. This could be a first step toward reminding people that information may want to be free, but those who provide it have bills to pay, too.