Publisher Drops Copyright Claim, Favors Fair Use

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If you've ever copied an excerpt from an online publication and pasted it in a public place on the Internet, you're a bit safer today from being sued for copyright infringement thanks to the Democratic Underground.

The liberal and progressive website won a victory yesterday for "Fair Use" of copyrighted material on the Internet when a media company in Las Vegas withdrew its opposition to dismissal of a lawsuit against the organization for copyright infringement.

"I knew the lawsuit was wrong from the start, and any self-respecting news publisher should have, too," Democratic Underground founder David Allen said in a statement. "I'm glad that they have finally admitted it."

In the case involving Stephens Media, publisher of the Las Vegas Review Journal, Democratic Underground asked a federal district court in Nevada to dismiss a lawsuit against the website claiming it had infringed on copyrighted material from the newspaper. The alleged infringement involved the posting to a forum at the progressive website of a five sentence excerpt from an article that appeared in the newspaper.

In its defense, Democratic Underground denied it had willfully supported copyright infringement by allowing the excerpt to be posted in the forum and that the "Fair Use" doctrine protects the organization from any claims of infringement. While initially disputing those claims by Democratic Underground, Stephens changed its mind and pleaded no mas in the case yesterday.

"Stephens Media does not contest the substantive arguments presented by [Democratic Underground] on the issues of volitional act and fair use as applied to the material facts of this case," the media company said in papers (PDF) filed with the court.

Democratic Underground was originally dragged into its faceoff with Stephens when a firm, Righthaven, purporting to enforce the media company's copyrights sued the progressive website for infringement.

Righthaven has filed hundreds of similar actions and, in most of them, the defendants chose to settle their cases and get on with their businesses rather than get sucked into time- and money-consuming litigation. That wasn't the case with Democratic Underground, however. The organization, backed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the law firm of Fenwick & West, and attorney Chad Bowers, counter-sued and in the process pulled Stephens into the affair.

After ruling that Righthaven had no right to enforce copyrights that it didn't own, its lawsuit was tossed by the federal court, which slammed Righthaven and Stephens in the process. "Righthaven and Stephens Media have attempted to create a cottage industry of filing copyright claims, making large claims for damages and then settling claims for pennies on the dollar," the court declared.

While pleased with the outcome in the case, the EFF was still miffed by Stephens' overall actions. "Stephens Media never should have authorized Righthaven to file this suit in the first place, and should never have wasted our client's and the court's time with its attempts to keep Righthaven's frivolous claim alive for the last year," Senior Staff Attorney Kurt Opsahl says in a statement.

The Democratic Underground's triumph yesterday should send a chilling message to copyright trolls who use the legal system to make easy money on the net.

"This is a hard fought and important victory for free speech rights on the Internet," Fenwick & West partner Laurence Pulgram says in a statement. "Unless we respond to such efforts to intimidate, we'll end up with an Internet that is far less fertile for the cultivation and discussion of the important issues that affect us all."

Follow freelance technology writer John P. Mello Jr. and Today@PCWorld on Twitter.

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