Bare Right to Sue for Copyright Infringement Not Enough for Standing

Righthaven LLC’s business model is identifying copyright infringements on behalf of third parties, obtaining limited, revocable copyright assignments from the third parties, and then suing the infringers.  Righthaven received such copyright assignments from Stephens Media LLC, the owner of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.  Righthaven separately sued Wayne Hoehn and Thomas DiBiase for copyright infringement for posting Las Vegas Review-Journal articles online without authorization.  The cases were consolidated for appeal.  In both cases, the district court ruled that Righthaven lacked standing to sue for copyright infringement because Righthaven did not own any of the exclusive rights, as required by the Copyright Act.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decisions:

Abraham Lincoln told a story about a lawyer who tried to establish that a calf had five legs by calling its tail a leg. But the calf had only four legs, Lincoln observed, because calling a tail a leg does not make it so. Before us is a case about a lawyer who tried to establish that a company owned a copyright by drafting a contract calling the company the copyright owner, even though the company lacked the rights associated with copyright ownership. Heeding Lincoln’s wisdom, and the requirements of the Copyright Act, we conclude that merely calling someone a copyright owner does not make it so.

(Opinion pdf pages 3-4).

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