Dallas Morning News settles suit against ‘Black Hat’ operator who reprinted its articles

The Dallas Morning News has settled its federal copyright lawsuit against a Wisconsin woman who repeatedly sold access to the newspaper’s articles that she reprinted on her own “copycat” websites without permission.

The News filed the lawsuit on June 29, alleging that Holly Starks boasted openly about the copyright violations, having publicly declared on video that she switched web-hosting companies six times to avoid the newspaper’s attempts to have the content removed.

The News, like other media companies, limits online access to most of its content to subscribers, who pay a fee to access it. The News is Texas’ leading newspaper and winner of nine Pulitzer Prizes. Its products reach an average daily audience of more than 1.1 million people, both in print and online at DallasNews.com.

By knowingly circumventing The News’ paywall, Starks and her company violated the Copyright Act and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act “through their ‘black hat’ SEO scheme,” the lawsuit alleged. Starks provides search engine optimization services to her clients and also sells access to the unlicensed articles on her website through her company, SEOTech.dev LLC, according to the lawsuit.

She could not be reached Thursday for comment.

The settlement agreement, signed this week, requires Starks to make an unspecified payment to The News, among other provisions.

Grant Moise, the newspaper’s publisher and president, issued the following statement on Thursday:

The Dallas Morning News filed suit against Holly Starks and her company, SEOTECH.DEV LLC, in order to stop defendants’ egregious practice and pattern, as alleged in the complaint, of willfully and knowingly misappropriating Dallas Morning News content and republishing that content on defendants’ websites in a way that portrays the content as that of Starks’ company—all without The News’ consent or license.

“Defendants have now agreed to remove all copies of Dallas Morning News content from their websites, and to not reproduce or distribute Dallas Morning News content in the future without a license. In addition, Defendants have agreed to not encourage third parties to reproduce or distribute copyrighted content of others without a license or authorization from the owner. Violation of that agreement could subject Defendants to $100,000 liquidated damages for each such violation.

“This lawsuit represents The Dallas Morning News’ resolve to protect its enormous investment in its news reporting resources, and its ability to support its newsgathering efforts through the sale of subscriptions and access to its news content, as well as associated marketing and advertising.”

Starks had established “hundreds of dummy news websites” that she called “Holly’s News Network,” the lawsuit said. The network of “copycat” websites falsely posed as legitimate news websites by taking content without permission, according to the lawsuit.

Starks charges her customers a subscription fee to write “guest posts” on her websites, which “artificially” inflates the websites’ traffic by manipulating search engine results’ algorithms, according to the lawsuit.

Starks had posted hundreds of copyrighted news articles and photographs from DallasNews.com on at least two of her websites without license or permission, the suit said. Many of the articles appeared to be slightly altered using online translation software to avoid detection but remained “substantially similar,” the lawsuit said.

The News has said it “repeatedly” informed Starks of her copyright infringements and demanded that she remove the content. But Starks had claimed to have instead moved her websites to other hosting services, according to the lawsuit.

She described in a YouTube livestream in March how she switched web-hosting services repeatedly to avoid The News’ copyright claims, the lawsuit said. And she recommended in the video that others in similar situations do likewise by using “offshore” hosting services.

Starks also claimed that certain articles from The News that she posted on her websites have ranked higher in search engine results than they had on DallasNews.com, according to the lawsuit.


Erlando F Rasatro

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