In case you missed the news this past Friday afternoon, a federal court has finally put an end to the unfortunate practice of copyright-trolling.
Righthaven, the firm that spent the better part of two years filing hundreds of lawsuits against Internet users who dared quote from certain newspapers, was dealt what may be its final defeat.
Judge Roger Hunt of the United States District Court of Nevada wrote that bloggers and message-board posters (and hosters) do not infringe copyright by excerpting a few sentences from news stories.
That such a ruling was ever necessary is a testament to the ingenuity of trial lawyers in finding new fields of liability to exploit in their pursuit of self-enrichment.
In 2006, four years before he founded Righthaven, attorney Steve Gibson co-authored a paper on copyright law. It offers a window to how better and more productive men from bygone eras must have discussed Sutter's mill, the Texas oil fields, or the Internet itself.
Gibson noted that copyright infringement occurs billions of times annually. With statutory damages ranging up to $150,000 a pop, "the dollar value of infringements would exceed trillions of dollars, arguably into the quadrillions."
Copyright litigation, he added, is also far less costly for lawyers than other causes of action like medical malpractice, which require "expensive expert witness battles."
Copyright owners can "avoid altogether that battle, and merely prove ownership and then infringement to obtain substantial monetary damages ..."
In keeping with this theory that thar's gold in them there hills, Gibson founded Righthaven, which adopted the same business model as every slip-and-fall lawyer in America: Find those in need and offer to help in exchange for a massive chunk of the winnings.
In this case, the needy was newspapers, beginning with Stephens Media, owner of the Las Vegas Review-Journal and dozens of other U.S. newspapers. The chunk at stake for Righthaven was 50 percent of all recoveries, plus expenses.
The back-story is that the Internet has been killing newspapers. Classified ads have been crushed by free online services. The Web has eroded both ends of the newspaper business model - fewer eyeballs to sell to advertisers, and fewer print sales to defray costs.
And large online audiences are no consolation -- in 2007, Publishing 2.0 reported that advertisers were willing to pay the New York Times roughly 100 times as much per print reader as per unique Internet visitor.
Some newspapers have tried to stem the tide with layoffs, pay-walls, more pop-up ads, email list rentals and novel distribution strategies. Stephens resorted to a deal with the devil.
They agreed in writing to assign certain copyrights to Righthaven, which could in turn put Gibson's legal theory to the test in federal court with nuisance lawsuits.
Righthaven filed 275 of them. They sued bloggers and message boards. They sued Democratic Underground. They even sued 2010 Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle for posting a Review-Journal story and an editorial about her race on her own campaign website. They demanded $150,000 in damages and ownership of her Web domain.
Although some of its early victims paid out settlements to get rid of its nuisance lawsuits, Righthaven failed where it mattered most -- in court.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which successfully defended Democratic Underground, notes that Righthaven never won a single case at trial.
Its claims to copyright ownership have been rejected in several courts. Its key assets -- including its own Web domain and the copyrights it really does own -- are being auctioned off to pay judgments that defendants have won against it.
The Nevada State Bar announced in January that it is looking into complaints against Gibson and two other Righthaven attorneys.
The lesson here -- a lesson learned in bygone eras by more productive and better men -- is that there really is no quick and easy way to quadrillions.
David Freddoso is The Examiner's online opinion editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.