Bloggers are protected as “Media” – Comins v. VanVoorhis (Chapter 2)

April 13, 2014

It’s an all-too-common scenario: A blogger criticizes someone online, and then gets sued for his statements.   But two things make this case unique: First, the plaintiff sued because of the blogger’s characterizations of him shooting two dogs at close range; second, the defendant blogger was in Florida – and thus protected by Fla. Stat. § 770.01. (I am proud to have represented Mr. VanVoorhis, the blogger in this case).

Florida’s pre-suit notice statute, § 770.01, requires defamation plaintiffs to alert defendants to the allegedly defamatory material before filing suit. The statute reads, in its entirety:

770.01 Notice condition precedent to action or prosecution for libel or slander.

Before any civil action is brought for publication or broadcast, in a newspaper, periodical, or other medium, of a libel or slander, the plaintiff shall, at least 5 days before instituting such action, serve notice in writing on the defendant, specifying the article or broadcast and the statements therein which he or she alleges to be false and defamatory

Florida’s appellate courts have interpreted this very strictly. Essentially, the statute doesn’t let you sue someone (as long as they are covered by the statute) unless you meet its conditions. It has a tendency to relieve courts of the burden of at least some frivolous defamation litigation, because the statute requires a defamation plaintiff to focus his attention on what, precisely, he finds to be defamatory and to articulate his concerns in writing. Theoretically, we must presume that such an exercise generates at least some self-reflection by parties and attorneys who might otherwise file unsupportable SLAPP suits.

The fact that 770.01 applies to newspapers and periodicals has never been challenged. When the legislature added “other medium” to the statute in 1976, I think it was being forward-thinking in trying to make the statute broad enough to embrace new media that might come into being. I always felt that “other medium” was clear enough. The Internet is a “medium,” so why shouldn’t 770.01 protect bloggers? We raised that issue at the trial court in this case, and the court gave us a pretty succinct ruling in our favor. (Trial Court Order).

Comins appealed, and he took the position that the words “other medium” did not extend to the Internet, and even if it did, it would only apply to news media. (Appellant’s brief at 14-15). Comins further argued that even if it extended to the Internet, Mr. VanVoorhis was not a “media defendant,” since he was not “a journalist.”

We argued that the language “or other medium” includes the Internet, and most certainly includes blogs. (Answer Brief). In fact, we took the position that the statute should apply to everyone, media, non-media, or anyone else. (The court did not hold that broadly). However, we also argued that no matter how the court looked at the scope of 770.01, it should apply to our client, because he was a “media defendant,” despite the fact that he “only” published on a blog.

The essential point, which the appellate court agreed with, is that a “journalist” is not something you are but is rather something that you do. Mr. VanVoorhis’ blog was journalism, and thus he was considered to be a “media defendant.” In agreeing, the appellate court gave us some wonderful language supporting the proposition that bloggers serve an essential function.

[I]t is hard to dispute that the advent of the internet as a medium and the emergence of the blog as a means of free dissemination of news and public comment have been transformative. By some accounts, there are in the range of 300 million blogs worldwide. The variety and quality of these are such that the word “blog” itself is an evolving term and concept. The impact of blogs has been so great that even terms traditionally well defined and understood in journalism are changing as journalists increasingly employ the tools and techniques of bloggers – and vice versa. In employing the word “blog,” we consider a site operated by a single individual or a small group that has primarily an informational purpose, most commonly in an area of special interest, knowledge or expertise of the blogger, and which usually provides for public impact or feedback. In that sense, it appears clear that many blogs and bloggers will fall within the broad reach of “media,” and, if accused of defamatory statements, will qualify as a “media defendant” for purposes of Florida’s defamation law as discussed above.

There are many outstanding blogs on particular topics, managed by persons of exceptional expertise, to whom we look for the most immediate information on recent developments and on whom we rely for informed explanations of the meaning of these developments. Other blogs run the gamut of quality of expertise, explanation and even- handed treatment of their subjects. We are not prepared to say that all blogs and all bloggers would qualify for the protection of section 770.01, Florida Statutes, but we conclude that VanVoorhis’s blog, at issue here, is within the ambit of the statute’s protection as an alternative medium of news and public comment.

The presuit notice requirement of section 770.01 applies to allegedly defamatory statements made in such a public medium the purpose of which is the free dissemination of news or analytical comment on matters of public concern.(Op. at 23-24)

In other words, if a blog is a legitimate news source, it is just as protected as if it were The New York Times.

But, the court did not go so far as to say that everyone gets protection under the statute, and not every blog is a member of the media. There are certainly blogs out there that have different missions, and those would not be covered.

This is a great decision for bloggers, especially those who might find themselves under the threat of a defamation suit in Florida.

As a practice note, I have often said that filing a defamation claim in Florida without sending a 770.01 notice should be per se legal malpractice. The simple exercise of sending a letter, where you articulate your legal theory, should be no great burden on any plaintiff. This case should make that clear. We certainly believed (and argued) that the defense should have prevailed on the merits. See Answer brief at 36-68. However, neither the trial court nor the appellate court ever looked at the merits — since the claims were barred completely by the plaintiff’s failure to comply with the simple exercise of sending a pre-suit letter.

Conversely, if you’re defending a blogger in Florida, do not fail to raise the 770.01 issue at the pleading stage. While it may be more satisfying to prevail on the actual merits of the case, this route is a lot easier and cheaper than a trial on the merits.

Case Documents:

    Comins Appellant Brief

    Van Voorhis Answer and Cross-Appeal Brief

    Comins’ Reply and Cross-Appeal Opposition

    Van Voorhis’ Cross-Appeal Reply Brief

    Appellate Court Opinion


Law Enforcement Priorities

April 13, 2014

I’ve been involved in the debate over whether we should criminalize “revenge porn.” As much as I despise the practice, I don’t agree with new criminal laws to punish it. In fact, I just spent some time on a panel at Stanford Law School, in the company of three people I greatly admire — one of whom (Attorney Erica Johnstone — one of the founders of “Without My Consent“) is a strong proponent of enacting new criminal laws to punish “Non-Consensual Porn.”

We had a very respectful debate over our differing opinions. During that discussion, I shared one of my rationales — that law enforcement just won’t give a shit. I’ve personally spoken with prosecutors about revenge porn cases in which the victim is underage — so a bona fide child pornography prosecution, wrapped up in a nice little bow for them. All they need to do is go grab the perpetrator.

The reaction?

“We just don’t have the resources to go after every one of these guys.”

Ok, fair enough. A 14 year old girl who had her life thrown upside-down. A child who expected that the state might give a shit about her. She’s not a priority. I’m not going to shit on law enforcement for making that judgment call, although that might seem to be a proper reaction. Lets look at it this way — that 14 year old girl had her life thrown upside down, but somewhere maybe, there’s an 8 year old girl tied up in a basement, and they need the resources they have in order to go save her. Fair enough?

But then, if that’s our rationale for ignoring the 14 year old, how are we ever going to convince a detective or a prosecutor to go after the ex-wife of a 35 year old guy who might wind up on an Non-Consensual Porn website, because his ex got pissed off at him and submitted some cock shots to the latest NCP site?

We aren’t.

When I get interviewed about this kind of thing, I often mock our law enforcement priorities – stating “If there were some underage kids drinking, or an old lady smoking pot for her glaucoma, they’d send in the troops. But, not for this kind of thing.”

Yeah… exactly. Swat teams for small amounts of marijuana, which never hurt anyone. Meanwhile, the kids I represent in civil cases can’t get law enforcement to give a shit about them, because resources.

You know, resources spent going after middle aged women who are buying plant food – because sometimes you might catch someone with a little bit of weed. (One of many sources)


An Open Letter to Journalists

March 7, 2014

Dear Members of the Media,

I sincerely appreciate all of your hard work in bringing us the news of the day. In this day and age, there is a lot of burgeoning information and it is cumbersome to sift through all of it to provide summaries to the masses. However, there is one thing you do not do that is incredibly frustrating–provide citations.

In reporting on a new science publication, you do not always provide a citation so that the interested reader can learn more. Worse, you rarely identify bill numbers, session laws, or case name/citations when reporting legal news. As a privacy attorney, I found the recent Massachusetts “upskirting” issue might warrant attention. It would have been helpful if you cited the case as Comm. v. Robertson, SJC-11353 (Mar. 5, 2014), even better if you provided a link: http://www.socialaw.com/slip.htm?cid=22645&sid=120 . Or, when the legislature promptly acted to outlaw the actions taken by Mr. Robertson, it would have been nice if you cited Acts of 2014, Chapter 23 (or H. 3934): https://malegislature.gov/Laws/SessionLaws/Acts/2014/Chapter43

As a journalist, I am assuming you read the primary source, so that way I can trust your reporting, correct? So, since you have the primary source, please make it easier for us and let us know how we can find it, too. Because, if you don’t share, it might turn out that you missed the real story. Let me spell it out for you–Massachusetts just made many previously lawful and proper hidden security cameras potentially unlawful.

According to the new law, it is now unlawful to secretly record images of fully clothed breasts, buttocks and genitals. Full stop. Your nanny thinks she’s alone, but you have a nanny-cam. Sorry, you probably just broke the law. You want to know which of the neighborhood kids have been going into your backyard when you aren’t home and stomping your daisies? That’s double the punishment.

Bad reporting of bad reactionary legislative lawyering. At least the reporting can be easily fixed.

Thank you.

Sincerely,
Jay M. Wolman


Fourth Circuit Delivers First Amendment Ass-Kicking

June 28, 2013

By J. DeVoy

This is not a Star Trek order.  There are no pithy jokes here.  There is, however, a shocking exposé of just how insidious the government can be in coercing silence when you speak out against outdated, incorrect, and even dangerous “conventional wisdom.”

Cooksey v. Futrell, et al., Case No. 12-2084, 2013 WL 3215240 at *1 (4th Cir. June 27, 2013).

Steve Cooksey ran a blog advocating a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet.  This diet and its permutations are generally known as known as a “paleo,” “primal” or “caveman” diet, and is based on eliminating historically recent additions to the human diet, such as processed grains.  This more or less inverts the USDA’s food pyramid (or triangle, depending on what generation you are), putting meat at the base of the pyramid with rough, leafy greens, and treating carbohydrate-laden foods like bread as less important.  Like anything people feel strongly about, the ambassadors of the paleo diet can be abrasive and annoying.  But, it works.

Cooksey’s backstory is remarkable, but surprisingly common among health advocates.  A Type II (adult-onset) diabetic, Cooksey was rushed to a hospital on the verge of a coma in 2009.  His dietitians advised him to eat a diet high in carbohydrates.  Cooksey, however, investigated matters himself and arrived at a diet high in protein and low in carbohydrates.  His blood sugar normalized and he was able to stop using insulin.  With a combination of diet and exercise (rather than, say, “fat acceptance”), Cooksey lost 78 pounds and felt better than ever before.

Paying it forward, Cooksey opened his blog, diabetes-warrior.net, in early 2010.  Cooksey used the blog to talk about his diet and lifestyle changes. He even included a disclaimer that he was not a licensed medical profession and had no medical qualifications – similar to how legal bloggers are quick to reminder readers that nothing they say online is legal advice.  The overarching theme of Cooksey’s blog was that high-carbohydrate diets caused more diabetes.  During the months of December 2011 and January 2012, Cooksey’s blog had 20,000 unique visitors.

Then Cooksey made the mistake all new red-pill types do: He explained his views to a weak and deliberately helpless public.  In July 2012, Cooksey attended a nutritional seminar for diabetics.  The seminar’s speaker advocated a high-carbohydrate diet for diabetics; Cooksey responded by advocating a low-carbohydrate diet instead.  An attendee at the seminar was so “””offended””” that he or she reported Cooksey to the North Carolina Board for Dietetics/Nutrition (the “Board”), claiming Cooksey’s advocacy was actually the unlicensed practice of dietetics.  Under North Carolina law governing dietetics, only licensed dietitians may provide nutrition care services, which have a broad definition that includes:

a. Assessing the nutritional needs of individuals and groups, and determining resources and constraints in the practice setting.
b. Establishing priorities, goals, and objectives that meet nutritional needs and are consistent with available resources and constraints.
c. Providing nutrition counseling in health and disease.
d. Developing, implementing, and managing nutrition care systems.
e. Evaluating, making changes in, and maintaining appropriate standards of quality in food and nutrition services.

Under North Carolina law, each and every act of unlicensed practice of dietetics is a separate misdemeanor.

The Board contacted Cooksey.  It told him that he would need to change his website.  It also told him that it was statutorily entitled to get an injunction against him.  Cooksey, fearing civil action, reluctantly complied with the Board’s initial demands to change his website, removing parts that might have been considered “advice” to visitors.

The Board told Cooksey it would review his website and tell him what he could and couldn’t say without a dietitian’s license.  After reviewing Cooksey’s site, the Board got back to him with pages and pages of comments.  The Board’s message was clear: Fix it – or else.  Again, Cooksey acquiesced – this time in fear of civil and even criminal penalties.  Despite not communicating with the Board, it nevertheless sent Cooksey a letter, noting that he had made the requested changes, and tacitly warning Cooksey that it would “continue to monitor the situation.”

After receiving this letter, Cooksey filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for the Board’s actions chilling his First Amendment protected speech.  He also sought a declaratory judgment that North Carolina’s statutes were unconstitutional both facially and as-applied.  The Board moved to dismiss under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1) for lack of standing and lack of ripeness, and 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim.  The district court granted the motion, holding that “voluntarily removing parts of one’s website in response to an inquiry from a state licensing board is not a sufficient injury to invoke Article III standing.”  The court also found that Cooksey was not subject to actual or imminent enforcement of the Board’s draconian laws.

At first blush, it seems that the district court took an unusually charitable view toward the Board’s actions.  Many who read this blog would disagree with the outcome.  Cooksey disagreed.  And so, too, did the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

The Fourth Circuit’s panel – which included former United States Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor sitting by designation – reviewed the dismissal de novo, or anew (conducting a new, independent analysis of the facts that were before the district court).  The Court of Appeals embarked on an analysis of justiciability with two old law school (and in one case, law practice) favorites, standing and ripeness.  The analysis is considerable, going on for many pages.  Some highlights are excerpted below:

On the question of standing:

In First Amendment cases, the injury-in-fact element is commonly satisfied by a sufficient showing of “self-censorship, which occurs when a claimant is chilled from exercising h[is] right to free expression.” Benham v. City of Charlotte, 635 F.3d 129, 135 (4th Cir. 2011) (internal quotation marks omitted).

However, this anticipated cannot just be speculative or the fruit of conjecture.  The appeals court quickly outlined how Cooksey’s case allowed him to have standing, largely due to the Board’s aggression:

In the present case, we not only have evidence of specific and — unlike NCRL — unsolicited written and oral correspondence from the State Board explaining that Cooksey’s speech violates the Act, but we also have a plaintiff who stopped engaging in speech because of such correspondence, and an explicit warning from the State Board that it will continue to monitor the plaintiff’s speech in the future. See J.A. 18 (Compl. ¶ 63-64) (Burill told Cooksey “that he and his website were under investigation” and that the State Board “does have the statutory authority to seek an injunction to prevent the unlicensed practice of dietetics.”); id. at 39 (red-pen review) (“You should not be addressing diabetic’s specific questions. You are no longer just providing information when you do this, you are assessing and counseling, both of which require a license.”); id. at 66 (Burill email) (“[W]e would ask that you make any necessary changes to your site, and moreover, going forward, align your practices with the guidance provided.”); id. at 105 (Burill letter) (“[T]he Board reserves the right to continue to monitor this situation.”). Therefore, we have no trouble deciding that Cooksey’s speech was sufficiently chilled by the actions of the State Board to show a First Amendment injury-in-fact.

The Board’s aggression was also helpful to Cooksey in showing a credible threat of prosecution.  From there, his complaint easily satisfied the requirements of causation – that his injury was caused by the conduct he complained of – and redressibility, which requires a non-speculative likelihood that his injury would be redressed by a favorable judicial decision.

Unfortunately, the opinion gave some daylight to the Board’s position.  If the laws the Board enforces are professional regulations that do not abridge the First Amendment, such as certain limited limitations placed on attorney speech by state professional conduct rules, then Cooksey may ultimately not prevail.  However, because that is question of the case’s merits – how the facts and the law mesh in court – rather than one of standing, or Cooksey’s ability to bring his claim to Court in the first place, this potential defense cannot keep Cooksey out of court (for now).

As for ripeness:

Much like standing, ripeness requirements are also relaxed in First Amendment cases. See New Mexicans for Bill Richardson v. Gonzales, 64 F.3d 1495, 1500 (10th Cir. 1995) (“The primary reasons for relaxing the ripeness analysis in th[e] [First Amendment] context is the chilling effect that potentially unconstitutional burdens on free speech may occasion[.]”). Indeed, “First Amendment rights . . . are particularly apt to be found ripe for immediate protection, because of the fear of irretrievable loss. In a wide variety of settings, courts have found First Amendment claims ripe, often commenting directly on the special need to protect against any inhibiting chill.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

The Court then gave the Board a little more abuse for soiling its own bed.

In the same way, Cooksey’s claims present the question of whether the Act and actions of the State Board unconstitutionally infringe on Cooksey’s rights to maintain certain aspects of his website. No further action from the Board is needed: it has already, through its executive director, manifested its views that the Act applies to Cooksey’s website, and that he was required to change it in accordance with the red-pen review or face penalties.

In its conclusion, the court of appeals vacated the district court’s order dismissing Cooksey’s complaint and remanded the case for a proceeding on the merits.  The Board can always ask the Fourth Circuit to stay its mandate and grovel with thousands of others to be the 1% whose cert petition the Supreme Court grants.  If nothing else, it will buy them time.  Hopefully, this opinion will leave a mark on the Board and make abusive government entities everywhere think twice before making any “suggestions” to the lowly citizenry they benevolently manage.  Specifically for the Board, its bad dream just got another life, Freddy Krueger-style.

A closing thought: North Carolina does not have an Anti-SLAPP law – not even a mediocre one that could be made good, like Nevada’s (which, starting October 1, 2013, gets a nice octane boost).  While § 1983 claims allow prevailing non-governmental parties to seek their attorneys’ fees under § 1988(b), those fees are discretionary, while prevailing Anti-SLAPP fees are mandatory – and more expeditiously awarded.  While state law-based Anti-SLAPP laws do not always work as drafted in federal court, there is a serious question whether such a statute’s existence or use would have led to a different outcome without an appeal – or any litigation at all.


Nevada’s New Anti-SLAPP Law

June 25, 2013

Nevada's Anti-SLAPP law, freshly signed.

Nevada’s Anti-SLAPP law, freshly signed.

You may have noticed that the writing has been a bit slow as of late. Well, one of the things that has been taking our attention away has been an all-hands effort up in Carson City, working on getting a realanti-SLAPP law passed here in the Silver State.

We are proud to announce that the mission has been accomplished. Nevada officially has a new anti-SLAPP law it can be proud of.

For the last two years, the Legal Satyricon has been complaining about the inadequacy of Nevada’s existing anti-SLAPP law.  Notably, one judge suggested the possibility that the statute could be construed to only be used in lawsuits involving communications directly to a government agency, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the current statute did not allow for an immediate appeal of a special motion to dimiss.

Ever since I moved here in 2011, I’ve hoped to civilize Nevada with a meaningful anti-SLAPP law. Last year, I had the pleasure of meeting now-state senator Justin Jones, who heard my plea.  My pitch was that in addition to protecting free speech, it would help Nevada’s efforts to snag technology jobs that were leapfrogging the state from California to Utah.  Senator Jones agreed to present my legislation to the Nevada Legislature if he won–thankfully, he did.

When Nevada’s legislative session commenced in February, the Randazza Legal Group team was a flurry of activity, drafting materials in support of a new Anti-SLAPP bill based on materials from throughout the country to present to the Legislature.  Rather than simply replicating the statutes in California, Washington, or Texas, though, the ultimate bill (SB 286) made specific, limited additions to broaden the scope of Nevada’s Anti-SLAPP statutes while maintaining innovative provisions within those laws that were uniquely Nevadan.

Marc Randazza and Nevada Governor, Brian Sandoval, with the freshly-signed Nevada Anti-SLAPP law.

Marc Randazza and Nevada Governor, Brian Sandoval, with the freshly-signed Nevada Anti-SLAPP law.

Armed with my dream statute in hand, I flew up to Carson City to present testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.  My testimony focused on the need for a stronger Anti-SLAPP statute in Nevada, and the harm to individuals and businesses done by the consumption of public and private resources on the litigation of dubious claims against First Amendment-protected speech.  The Senate Judiciary Committee, and later the entire Nevada Senate, approved of the bill.  I then testified before the Assembly Judiciary Committee in support of the bill.  Like the Nevada Senate, the Assembly Judiciary Committee and the entire Nevada Assembly passed the bill.  The entire Nevada legislature had agreed that it was time to enhance Nevada’s Anti-SLAPP statutes so that they would embrace – and protect – a broader range of Constitutionally protected expression.  On June 3, 2013, Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval signed the bill into law.  The changes will take effect on October 1, 2013. The main changes are discussed below.  The full text of SB 286 as enacted by Governor Sandoval can be found here.

Expands the Breadth and Scope of Protected Speech.  The new law expands protected conduct to include any “communication made in direct connection with an issue of public interest in a place open to the public or in a public forum,” so long as the statement is truthful or made without knowledge of falsehood.

Allows For an Immediate Appeal of a Denied Anti-SLAPP Motion.   The new law modifies NRS 41.650 so that a movant is immune from any civil action­ – not just liability – from claims arising from his or her protected speech, which allows for an immediate appeal.

Expedites Judicial Consideration of Anti-SLAPP Motions.  Under the new law’s changes, the time for a court to rule on a motion after filing is reduced to 7 judicial days from 30 after the motion is served upon the plaintiff.

Creates a $10,000 Stick to Deter Frivolous Claims.  In addition to allowing for a movant’s recovery of costs and attorneys’ fees, the bill amends NRS 41.670 to allow the court to discretionarily award a successful movant up to $10,000 in addition to his or her reasonable costs and attorneys’ fees.  This serves as a significant disincentive and warning for those who might wish to pursue censorious litigation.

Creates SLAPP-Back Provision to Prevent Frivolous Anti-SLAPP Motions.  The bill amends 41.670 so that a court denying a special motion to dismiss must award the claimant to successfully defeat the Anti-SLAPP motion his or her costs and reasonable attorneys’ fees upon finding that the Anti-SLAPP motion was “frivolous or vexatious.” I believe this is necessary, lest the Anti-SLAPP law become a barrier to justice for those with supportable claims.

Retains Key Elements From Nevada’s Existing Laws.  While the bill represents a massive change to Nevada’s Anti-SLAPP laws, Nevada’s existing statutes had a number of powerful provisions that were unique among Anti-SLAPP provisions are fortunately still intact.  The Nevada Attorney General, or the “chief legal officer or attorney of a political subdivision” in Nevada may still “defend or otherwise support the person against whom the action is brought.” NRS 41.660(1)(b).  SB 286 also retains the successful Anti-SLAPP movant’s right to bring a separate action against the defeated plaintiff for compensatory damages, punitive damages, and the attorneys’ fees and costs for bringing the new action.

These changes bring Nevada into line with California, Oregon, Washington, Texas, and the District of Columbia as having the most comprehensive and progressive Anti-SLAPP statutes in the nation.  I am proud of these changes and the effort my Randazza Legal Group team put into effecting this critical update to Nevada’s Anti-SLAPP statutes.  We all look forward to seeing this statute in effect.


Nevada has a New Anti-SLAPP Law

June 24, 2013

Post updated here.


Alleged Copyright Troll’s Day in Court

March 12, 2013

No matter your opinion on U.S. copyright law, it is the law of the land. Copying a work without consent may be unlawful and subject the copier to damages. On this blog, and others, we’ve seen instances of legitimate and illegitimate copyright claims.

An entirely separate issue is the manner by which copyright claims are enforced. In the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, there have been concerns raised regarding certain attorneys, their firms, and (as the judge termed it) their “shell” companies. Yesterday, a hearing was held at which certain non-appearing attorneys affiliated with Prenda Law were invited to attend, as well as an attorney formerly associated with that firm. Ken White at Popehat attended and his writeup is here: http://www.popehat.com/2013/03/11/brett-gibbs-gets-his-day-in-court-but-prenda-law-is-the-star/

This is a case in which the Plaintiff even dismissed the case against the Defendant, but the Court is exploring whether there was fraud committed by the Plaintiff or its counsel in consolidated and related matters. Hearings like this generally do not occur, and apparently the non-appearing attorneys affiliated with Prenda appeared by counsel, rather than in person, which may have violated the court’s order (although they made a last-minute filing arguing they could not properly be compelled to attend). What is particularly interesting is that the subject lawyers and Plaintiffs have been intimately involved with the development of how Bittorrent claims are prosecuted, including early discovery orders, mass joinder, etc. Of note, it has become practice for a content provider to sue John Does, because all that is available is the IP address used to access a covered work. A subpoena is issued to the ISP, who may provide the identity of an account holder. Common practice is then to make a demand on the account holder or amend the complaint to identify them by name. Of concern by this court and others is that the account holder may not be the infringer. A content provider may need to engage in further discovery and investigation to find out who may have had access to the internet connection prior to naming the person as defendant. Recent rulings have suggested that just as you cannot simply sue the person who owns a telephone for a call that may have given rise to liability, you must sue the caller, you cannot simply sue the internet account holder. This court has questioned the Plaintiff’s and its attorneys’ efforts in identifying the infringer. Additional procedural concerns are raised in this case over who financially benefits in the litigation and how content has been transferred.

The docket in Ingenuity 13 v Doe, 2:12-cv-08333 is here:

http://ia601508.us.archive.org/28/items/gov.uscourts.cacd.543744/gov.uscourts.cacd.543744.docket.html


Required Reading – Jordan Rushie on Wisdom

January 27, 2013

Jordan Rushie writes about what a moron he was as a young associate in, Hubris.

I must confess some bias here. I represent Rushie in one little matter. I am co-counsel with him on multiple matters. But, this piece is why I am proud to call him a colleague. Achievements are great. I have had enough of them to know that they sometimes come from perfectly executed plans. But, I also know that achievements are sometimes the result of bad plans, bad decisions, and dumb luck.

A lawyer earns my respect more when he tells me about his fuck-ups and what he learned from them. Rushie has my respect.

Rushie’s post is a lesson that you can’t learn in law school — not because law school can’t teach it, but because law schools REFUSE to teach it.


David McKee, Are you a Tool?

September 5, 2012

I don’t know, but I think you might be learning a thing or two about the Streisand Effect.

Apparently, Dennis Laurion did not like Dr. McKee’s bedside manner, reviewing him thusly:

When I mentioned Dr. McKee’s name to a friend who is a nurse, she said, ‘Dr. McKee is a real tool!

Case was dismissed as being pure opinion, but reinstated on appeal.   It is now before the Minnesota Supreme Court.  Regardless of the outcome, gajillions more have seen the negative review.  Lawyers should counsel their clients on the potential of the Streisand Effect when handling cases such as this.

Source:  http://www.startribune.com/lifestyle/health/168552176.html?refer=y


What What, Fair Use on a 12(b)(6)?

June 8, 2012

By J. DeVoy.

“What what, in the butt?” was the question recently before justices Easterbrook, Cudahy and Hamilton in the appeal of Brownmark Films LLC v. Comedy Partners from the Eastern District of Wisconsin. (Opinion)  At issue was whether South Park’s interpretation of Samwell’s “What What In The Butt,” as performed by Butters in the episode “Canada on Strike,” was non-infringing fair use under 17 U.S.C. § 107.  More interestingly, though, was that Comedy Partners raised the defense on a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss – without any discovery or opportunity therefor (see FRCP 56(d), formerly Rule 56(f)).  The Eastern District of Wisconsin agreed that South Parks’ rendition of What What In the Butt was fair use, and dismissed the Complaint at the pleading stage.

Brownmark did not include the original What What In the Butt video, nor South Park’s adaptation, in its Complaint.  South Park Digital Studios did, however, attach both videos to its motion to dismiss, relying on the incorporation by reference doctrine.  On appeal, the Seventh Circuit resolved this issue in South Park’s favor:

Because the claim was limited to the production and distribution of a single episode, the district court was correct to rely solely on the two expressive works referenced in Brownmark’s amended complaint and attached to SPDS’s motion, as well as the allegations in the complaint, to decide on the fair use defense.

SPDS relies on the incorporation-by-reference doctrine to maintain that reliance on the attached works does not violate Rule 12(d), which requires that Rule 12(b)(6) or 12(c) motions containing materials outside of the pleadings be converted into motions for summary judgment. It is well settled that in deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a court may consider “documents attached to a motion to dismiss . . . if they are referred to in the plain- tiff’s complaint and are central to his claim.” Wright v. Assoc. Ins. Cos. Inc., 29 F.3d 1244, 1248 (7th Cir. 1994). In effect, the incorporation-by-reference doctrine provides that if a plaintiff mentions a document in his complaint, the defendant may then submit the document to the court without converting defendant’s 12(b)(6) motion to a motion for summary judgment. The doctrine prevents a plaintiff from “evad[ing] dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) simply by failing to attach to his complaint a document that prove[s] his claim has no merit.” Tierney v. Vahle, 304 F.3d 734, 738 (7th Cir. 2002). (Op. at 5)

But the Seventh Circuit noted a curious wrinkle to this analysis:

While the application of this doctrine to the present case would seem to allow SPDS’s action, no court of appeals has ruled that the content of television programs and similar works may be incorporated by reference. Several district courts have concluded that the doctrine does apply to such works. See, e.g., Burnett v. Twentieth Century Fox, 491 F. Supp. 2d 962, 966 (C.D. Cal. 2007); Zella v. E.W. Scripps Co., 529 F. Supp. 2d 1124, 1131-32 (C.D. Cal. 2007); Daly v. Viacom, 238 F. Supp. 2d 1118, 1121-22 (N.D. Cal. 2002). And we think it makes eminently good sense to extend the doctrine to cover such works, especially in light of technological changes that have occasioned widespread production of audio-visual works. The parties, however, did not brief this issue, and so we reserve the resolution of the question for a later date. (Op. at 5-6)

Ultimately finding that the Eastern District of Wisconsin was within its jurisdiction to grant dismissal, the appellate court engages in a relatively truncated fair use analysis under the four factors of 17 U.S.C. § 107.  The reason for the brevity?

Since Brownmark never opposed SPDS’s fair use argument in the district court, we consider the argument waived. (Op. at 9)

Ouch.  And, since it’s the Seventh Circuit, that means automatically shifting attorney’s fees and costs under 17 U.S.C. § 505.  What What In the Butt, Indeed.

Perhaps the overlooked gem of this opinion is that the Seventh Circuit has forever enshrined my favorite South Park meme: Internet Money.

The South Park Elementary school boys—Cartman, Stan, Kyle and But- ters—decide to create a viral video in order to accrue enough “Internet money” to buy off the striking Canadians. The boys create a video, “What What (In The Butt),” (WWITB) in which Butters sings a paean to anal sex. Within the show, the video is a huge hit, but the boys are only able to earn “theoretical dollars.”

As the South Park episode aptly points out, there is no “Internet money” for the video itself on YouTube, only advertising dollars that correlate with the number of views the video has had. It seems to this court that SPDS’s likely effect, ironically, would only increase ad revenue. Any effect on the derivative market for criticism is not protectable. Id. at 592. And the plaintiff has failed to give the district court or this court any concrete suggestion about potential evidence indicat- ing that the South Park parody has cut into any real market (with real, non-Internet dollars) for derivative uses of the original WWITB video. (Op.)

Of course, when I use “Internet Money,” it refers to settlements from BitTorrent infringers and others who pay for their wrongdoing.  But, it is evocative of the constant challenge of monetizing the digital ether of the World Wide Web.


U.S. v. Heicklen Explained – a Win for the Wizened and Worried

April 24, 2012

By Larry Sutter, Special to the Legal Satyricon

The Southern District of New York recently issued its order dismissing the United State’s case against Julian Heicklen.  The order is available here.  While this is an interesting case about the protection of speech advocating jury nullification, what is even more interesting is the story behind it – from both the people involved to the affect it has had on New York’s legal community.

The Defendant: An 80-year-old retired chemistry professor who believes in freedom and liberty. Like, a lot. He stands in front of the federal courthouse in lower Manhattan handing out pamphlets advocating jury nullification. Calling him “cantankerous” is an understatement that does violence to the language: With his counsel’s motion to dismiss still pending, he addresses a letter to the federal judge who has his case firing his court-appointed standby federal defense counsel–a letter in which the salutation is “Dishonorable Judge Wood,” and the closing is “yours in disgust and hatred.” Among other requests, the letter sought the indictment of the District’s US Attorney.

As part of the investigation, the US Attorney sends an undercover agent posing as a juror to talk to the professor – who advises him he has the right to decide both the law and the facts in the interest of justice. The professor is then indicted for violating the federal jury tampering statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1504. Ironically, such a charge does not merit trial by jury.

The federal defenders, who moved to dismiss the case on every possible ground before they were fired, including § 1504’s vagueness and overbreadth in violation of the First Amendment. But even in their briefs, the defenders refer to their client as a “shabby old man distributing his silly leaflets.”

New York’s legal community has drawn its battle lines over the case, spawning numerous articles on our precious heritage of freedom.  Prominent attorneys forecast that mere anarchy would be loosed upon the world—as two eminent lawyers argued last December in The New York Law Journal:

“Pause for a moment to imagine how this would work in practice with cases involving politically heated and classically divisive social issues….Runaway jury verdicts would amount to little more than a random 12-person vote….Talk about an engraved invitation for chaos—indeed, anarchy.”

Indeed? Indeed! Which the prosecutors were glad to echo. Last month, an Assistant U.S. Attorney characterized Heicklen’s advocacy as “an absolute threat to the system,” during a hearing on the defendant’s motion to dismiss.

But then comes a noble-visaged Portia of a judge to render justice between these parties.  Filleting the statute as skillfully as the countermen at Zabar’s wield their razor-sharp knives upon the $28-a-pound Nova Scotia salmon, Judge Kimba Wood rules that because the statute—giving effect to all its language, not allowing any of its provisions to be condensed or duplicated—only forbids attempting

“to influence the action or decision of a juror upon an issue or matter pending before that juror or pertaining to that juror’s duties by means of a written communication made in relation to a a specific case pending before that juror or in relation to a point in dispute between the parties before that juror.” (Emphasis the Court’s.)

Therefore, generalized exhortations—as opposed to urging the juror to throw a specific case—are OK. (source)  And you don’t even have to get to all those tricky First Amendment issues, do you?

Nevertheless almost half the decision is spent not getting to the First Amendment issues. In particular, the judge found that the danger, whatever it might be, in free-floating jury nullification advocacy wasn’t clear or present enough to pose “a danger to the administration of justice.” Why shouldn’t the jurors respond as sympathetically to the judge’s instructions to follow the law as she gives it as they might to Heicklen’s exhortation to disregard it?  Indeed, Judge’s Wood statutory interpretation reached the same result Heicklen’s counsel urged in their overbreadth argument, namely, that to convict Heicklen for what he was doing would be to punish protected First Amendment activity, viz.,  speech not directed to a specific case or matter before a particular juror.

Heicklen is said to be pleased and is reported to be planning to resume his post Monday in Federal Plaza and, afterwards, go to lunch with his supporters. Dutch treat, of course. It’s reported (on Scott Greenfield’s Simple Justice blog) that his email to this effect was signed, “one small step for a shabby old man, but a giant leap for justice and our country.”


ABA Journal Magazine Tackles Righthaven in May 2012 Issue

April 23, 2012

By J. DeVoy

Remember Righthaven?  While it has been stripped of its intellectual property and claims against it keep piling up, the fat lady has not yet sung – and the ABA has noticed.

The May 2012 ABA Journal’s cover story is the aftermath of Righthaven.  Eriq Gardner, who Righthaven once sued for posting an image of an exhibit from one of its court pleadings, examined both sides of the copyright enforcement equation.  Marc Randazza and Ron Coleman are quoted in the lengthy piece, which centers on Righthaven but touches on the RIAA’s litigation campaign, the mass-joinder suits brought by porn studios, and the realities of plaintiff-side copyright enforcement.

Righthaven’s CEO, Steven Gibson, is quoted with the following observation:

“One of the questions for the article is why is it so difficult for copyright owners to hire competent copyright litigation counsel?” he said. “There’s not a lot across the country. Definitely not like personal injury lawyers. You can’t go into the phone book and find a listing. Why is it this difficult? Why isn’t there more copyright litigation?”

Yet, even with Righthaven.com no longer belonging to Nevada’s Righthaven LLC, he is optimistic about the venture’s future.

“Righthaven remains the vehicle for dealing with infringements on the Internet,” Gibson told me recently.

A motion by the EFF seeking personal sanctions against Gibson at a rate of $500 per day is still pending as of this writing.

The problems of online copyright infringement and enforcement are real, and few would argue that there is not some useful role of copyright in society.  These controls, however, cannot and should not completely gobble up protected speech – especially since the 1976 Copyright Act codified fair use in 17 U.S.C. § 107.  Even allowing breathing space for hilarious derivative works, much work needs to be done with respect to fighting infringement, even as the law for doing so remains in flux.


Potential DMCA Game Change in 2d Circuit Ruling on Viacom v. YouTube

April 5, 2012

By J. DeVoy

The Second Circuit released its opinion in Viacom v. YouTube today, partially vacating  the Southern District of New York’s order granting summary judgment in favor of the online video service.  Ultimately, the case is to be remanded to the district court for fact-finding on whether YouTube had knowledge of infringement, had the right and ability to control infringing content, and YouTube’s willful blindness.

Almost as soon as the Court starts writing, it delivers the gut punch:

Although the District Court correctly held that the § 512(c) safe harbor requires knowledge or awareness of specific infringing activity, we vacate the order granting summary judgment because a reasonable jury could find that YouTube had actual knowledge or awareness of specific infringing activity on its website. We further hold that the District Court erred by interpreting the “right and ability to control” infringing activity to require “item-specific” knowledge. (Opinion at 2)

While the Second Circuit held that YouTube qualified for DMCA protections under § 512(c), the easy work of the opinion ends there.  What follows are a range of questions that the Second Circuit believed needed to be supported by more facts – potentially changing the landscape for user-generated content.

The Second Circuit is not interested in relegating the operators of user-generated content services to constantly policing their sites for infringement, and believe that § 512(c)(1)(A) does not require this conduct:

Under § 512(c)(1)(A), knowledge or awareness alone does not disqualify the service provider; rather, the provider that gains knowledge or awareness of infringing activity retains safe-harbor protection if it “acts expeditiously to remove, or disable access to, the material.” 17 U.S.C. § 512(c)(1)(A)(iii). Thus, the nature of the removal obligation itself contemplates knowledge or awareness of specific infringing material, because expeditious removal is possible only if the service provider knows with particularity which items to remove. Indeed, to require expeditious removal in the absence of specific knowledge or awareness would be to mandate an amorphous obligation to “take commercially reasonable steps” in response to a generalized awareness of infringement. Viacom Br. 33. Such a view cannot be reconciled with the language of the statute, which requires “expeditious[ ]” action to remove or disable “the material” at issue. 17 U.S.C. § 512(c)(1)(A)(iii) (emphasis added). (Opinion at 16)

However, this does not absolve YouTube for potential liability for red flag knowledge.  Since the internet has changed much since the DMCA’s enactment, the examples of red-flag knowledge articulated by Congress are largely inapplicable now.  Those availing themselves of these protections hold up the examples of red-flag knowledge described by the Senate (e.g., domain names with words like “illegal,” “stolen” or “pirate” in them), while copyright enforcers have advocated for a broader standard of red flag knowledge, along the lines of “I know it when I see it.”  Seeing this hole in the law, the Second Circuit tried to reconcile a question a question that has befuddled many a copyright lawyer: What the hell, exactly, is red flag knowledge?

The difference between actual and red flag knowledge is thus not between specific and generalized knowledge, but instead between a subjective and an objective standard. In other words, the actual knowledge provision turns on whether the provider actually or “subjectively” knew of specific infringement, while the red flag provision turns on whether the provider was subjectively aware of facts that would have made the specific infringement “objectively” obvious to a reasonable person. The red flag provision, because it incorporates an objective standard, is not swallowed up by the actual knowledge provision under our construction of the § 512(c) safe harbor. Both provisions do independent work, and both apply only to specific instances of infringement. (Opinion at 17-18)

Actually proving red flag knowledge is a factual question.  It is also part of the reason the case is remanded to the S.D.N.Y.  Indeed, the Court of Appeals spends pages reviewing and discussing the record evidence it believes creates a question of fact as to whether YouTube had actual knowledge of infringement on its service. (Opinion at 19-22)  The same is true of willful blindness, the equivalent of knowledge in copyright cases. (Opinion at 19-24)

As to the “right and ability” to control user-uploaded content under § 512(c)(1)(B), the Second Circuit also remanded this issue to the District Court for further fact-finding.  The Court of appeals rejected both interpretations of this standard as advanced by the parties – for Viacom, a codification of common law vicarious liability standards; and for YouTube, a requirement that the provider must know of the particular case before it can control the infringement. (Opinion at 19-25)  The court agreed that the right and ability to control under § 512(c)(1)(B) requires more than the mere ability to remove or block access to materials on the defendant’s website – but how much more, or what that “more” might be, is unclear – other than the fact that it does not require specific knowledge.

Another issue remanded to the District Court is the question of YouTube’s syndication of its videos to others:

In or around March 2007, YouTube transcoded a select number of videos into a format compatible with mobile devices and “syndicated” or licensed the videos to Verizon Wireless and other companies. The plaintiffs argue—with some force—that business transactions do not occur at the “direction of a user” within the meaning of § 512(c)(1) when they involve the manual selection of copyrighted material for licensing to a third party. The parties do not dispute, however, that none of the clips-in-suit were among the approximately 2,000 videos provided to Verizon Wireless. In order to avoid rendering an advisory opinion on the outer boundaries of the storage provision, we remand for fact-finding on the question of whether any of the clips-in-suit were in fact syndicated to any other third party. (Opinion at 31-32)

The court rounds out its opinion by considering YouTube’s repeat infringer policy and other software tools used to avoid the posting of infringing content.  Neither are sufficient to exclude YouTube from the safe harbor provisions of § 512(c).  Because more fact-finding is needed, the Court of Appeals declined to determine whether the trial court erred in denying Viacom’s cross-motion for summary judgment.

While not likely to become an Alameda Books, this litigation is far from over.  Even if Youtube had won, Viacom likely would have petitioned the Supreme Court for certiorari.  Based on the Grokster case, there is some likelihood the Supreme Court would have granted it.  But by sending the case down to the S.D.N.Y. yet again, another appeal to the Second Circuit is all but ensured.


Latest Righthaven Developments

March 28, 2012

The Gametime IP blog discusses them here.


Lawyer billing rates

March 5, 2012

Law.com conducted a survey of lawyers’ billing rates.

Nationwide, partners averaged $661 per hour, returning to their 2009 average after a dip to $639 per hour in 2010.

Average for associates last year was $445 per hour, up six bucks from the year before. (source)

I gotta raise my rates….


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