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Opsahl said the lawsuits themselves cause harm by stifling open communication.

“Linking to articles and excerpting from them is part of the lifeblood of the online community,” he said. “They are not trying to hurt the Review-Journal. In fact, many of them are excited about the coverage.”

Gibson said readers do not have the right to reprint content simply because a news site encourages them to post links on social networking sites.

“You can’t say, ‘Because I believe I am doing the party I am infringing on a benefit I am entitled to do it,’” Gibson said.

The lawsuits are being closely watched by news companies that are struggling to protect their content as more people rely on the Web for news and ad revenue in printed newspapers dwindles.

Righthaven’s practice of suing without first providing offenders an opportunity to remove the content has been widely debated.

“The news media has just not done stuff like this before,” said Eric E. Johnson, a University of North Dakota law professor who focuses on copyright infringement and intellectual property issues. “The news media has this sense of public responsibility and a deep sense of ethics and the public trust … this seems like a straightforward effort to make money. It’s mean.”