Senior US district judge John Kane said that only the "legal owner" or "beneficial owner" of copyrights can sue for violations of those rights. The 'legal owner' is a party that actually owns a right to the copyrighted works, whereas the 'beneficial owners' are "parties who lacked a legal interest in the copyright, but who still stood to gain financially from the legal dissemination of the copyrighted material," the judge said in his ruling.
Kane said Righthaven had no rights to the copyrighted work it was suing over.
"Righthaven is neither a 'legal owner' or a 'beneficial owner' for purposes of [US copyright law], and it lacks standing to institute an action for copyright infringement," Kane said.
Copyright in a photograph published by the Denver Post in November last year was "purportedly transferred" to Righthaven by the publication's parent company, Media News Group, the judge said. Righthaven registered the photograph with the US Copyright Office in December and then filed 57 lawsuits in Colorado claiming copyright infringement relating to the use of the photo.
Among those whom Righthaven sued was a blogger, Leland Wolf, who had posted the photo on his website without Righthaven's permission. Wolf challenged the legitimacy of Righthaven's copyright claims and Kane granted him summary judgment, ruling that Media News Group had not given Righthaven any of the ownership rights to its photograph.
"MediaNews Group has assigned to Righthaven the bare right to sue for infringement – no more, no less," Kane said in his ruling.
"Although the assignment of the bare right to sue is permissible, it is ineffectual. Standing alone, '[t]he right to sue for an accrued claim for infringement is not an exclusive right under [US copyright law]'. Furthermore, neither [Media News Group's assignment of rights or the terms of its agreement with Righthaven] provide Righthaven any beneficial interest in the dissemination of the work," the judge said.
Kane said that companies that prioritise "economic benefit over public access" to copyrighted works do so "in direct contradiction to the constitutionally mandated equilibrium upon which copyright law is based".
"A third-party who has been assigned the bare right to sue for infringement has no interest in the legal dissemination of the copyrighted material," Kane said in his ruling.
"On the contrary, that party derives its sole economic benefit by instituting claims of infringement, a course of action which necessarily limits public access to the copyrighted work," he said.
In addition to Righthaven's copyright claims being dismissed before the court could hear the full arguments of its case, the company was also ordered to pay Wolf's legal costs.
"In light of the need to discourage the abuse of the statutory remedies for copyright infringement, I ... order that Righthaven shall reimburse Mr. Wolf’s full costs in defending this action, including reasonable attorney fees," the judge said in his ruling.
The Colorado district court ruling follows a similar finding in Nevada earlier this year when a judge in that state ruled that Righthaven did not have a legal standing in which to sue for copyright infringement.