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Las Vegas-based lawfirm Righthaven has been suing everyone from bloggers to commenters – anyone who has posted even a portion of the text or images to which it owns the rights. Righthaven doesn’t actually make anything, they just buy the rights to stories and images that have gone viral on the web.

Now, according to the Las Vegas Sun, Righthaven has scored what Ars Technica aptly describes as an “own goal”: Not only did a Federal judge reject Righthaven’s case against the non-profit Center for Intercultural Organizing, the judge also declared that non-profits may re-print entire articles from news outlets under certain circumstances.

The decision hinges on the portion of Fair Use law that declares that it’s all right to re-distribute a piece of content as long as it doesn’t hurt the market for the original content. In this case, there was virtually no possible overlap between the readership of the original piece (a Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper article) and the readers who would see the piece on the non-profit’s website.

In seeking to reap maximum damages from as many defendants as possible Righthaven appears to have opened the floodgates to a kind of soft-infringement. For example, the argument could be made (but was not, apparently, in this case) that if any non-profit could reprint an entire article, rather than excerpting the article and linking to the original, this could actually constitute damage to the “market” for that article, in as much as it would reduce the number of pageviews that the original article received.

Clearly this was not the intention of Righthaven, but it raises the question: in its over-reaching, has the law firm set a precedent that could damage the ability of content creators and news gatherers to control how their works are used, and to achieve fair compensation for their distribution?

Follow Mims on Twitter or contact him via email.

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