Rodney Harmon's lawsuit against Hilton might seem silly at first. After staying in the Hilton Garden Inn Sonoma Airport this March, Rodney noticed that the hotel had charged him $0.75 for a copy of USA Today he neither wanted nor read. Small print on the Hilton paperwork indicated that unless hotel customers requested a refund, they would be charged for their seemingly complementary newspaper. "Mr. Harmon and this law firm believe there is more at stake than 75 cents," Harmon's lawyer Kirk J. Wolden told The New York Times.  "It exemplifies the types of advantages that, unfortunately, we see companies taking of you and I and everyone else every day."

Well, Woldon wasn't kidding. Jeff Bercovici at Forbes did some research and found that half of USA Today's 1.78 million copies are sent to hotels daily. Newspaper analyst John Morton guesses that 90 percent of the charges on those 970,000 copies go unnoticed, and Bercovici sums up the financial impact:

An extra 75 cents a day on a hotel room that costs $80 or $180 per night is hardly worth the bother of complaining about, much less hiring a lawyer. But the money involved on USA Today’s end is considerable. At the rate Hilton charges, those 420,000 guest refund copies generate $82 million in circulation revenue over the course of a year for USA Today. Even if you assume the hotel chains keep half of that for themselves, that’s still an extra $41 million--plus the advertising revenue the extra audience generates.

It's not a total stretch of the imagination to believe that a significant segment of USA Today's business model floats on top of these hotel deals. However, the costs of those unwanted papers been criticized for years. In 2009, Marriott and Hyatt announced that they would be scaling back their newspaper program because customers didn't read them and they created lots of waste. "I visit more than 250 hotels a year, and more often than not, I’m stepping over unclaimed newspapers as I walk down the hallway,” chief executive J.W. Marriott, Jr., told The Times

Marriott guessed that inviting guests to opt-in to receiving a newspaper would reduce distribution by about 50,000 a day and reduce carbon emissions by 10,350 tons annually. According to those old figures, the carbon footprint for USA Today's hotel deal could be as heavy as 86,940 tons--though it would surely be higher adjusted to the current economic conditions. No wonder so many hotels are experimenting with iPad alternatives.