Evidence-destroying defendant severely sanctioned in P2P file-sharing case

In the case of Arista Records v. Tschirhart, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas has shown little mercy on a defendant accused by record companies of illegal file-sharing.

Knowing that a court order was in place requiring her to turn over her hard drive to be copied, the defendant allegedly used “wiping” software in an attempt to destroy all evidence of her illegal P2P file sharing. In response, the plaintiff record companies moved, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(b), for the most severe form of sanctions against the defendant – entry of default against her. The court granted the plaintiffs’ motion, and provided them with 30 days to submit a proposed order spelling out their damages.

Given that the record companies’ expert opined that the defendant had downloaded over 200 sound recordings during 2005, those requested damages will probably be substantial. Statutory damages under the Copyright Act can go as high as $150,000 per work infringed, in the most egregious cases.

In reaching its decision to enter default against the defendant, the court exercised its inherent power to do so, making a note of its obligation to act with “restraint and discretion.” It found that the defendant had acted in bad faith. That bad faith was exacerbated – and the default was further warranted – by the fact that the defendant herself was responsible for the destruction of evidence, that the deletion of the files destroyed the strongest evidence relevant to the plaintiff’s infringement claims, and that less drastic sanctions would not be appropriate.

Not only was the sanction intended to dissuade the plaintiff from destroying evidence in the future, it was intended to make an example out of her. Merely awarding the plaintiffs their attorney’s fees or giving the jury an adverse inference instruction at trial would not have been enough to remedy the situation. Given the defendant’s “blatant contempt” for the court and a “fundamental disregard for the judicial process,” only default would be an adequate punishment and deterrent to others considering similar conduct.

[Hat tip to Techdirt for posting on this case.]

Arista Records, LLC, v. Tschirhart, No. 05-372 (W.D. Tex., August 23, 2006).

Company had no standing to challenge discovery on behalf of anonymous defamers

After seeing what it believed to be defamatory statements about it on Yahoo! Finance and Silicon Investor message boards, plaintiff Matrixx Initiatives, Inc. (“Matrixx”) filed a lawsuit against several “John Doe” defendants. Through information obtained from Yahoo!, Matrixx determined that certain of the alleged defamatory statements were posted with computers owned by Barbary Coast Capital Management. Matrixx took the deposition of one Mr. Worthington, the manager of Barbary Coast, asking him to identify the anonymous Internet users who posted the alleged defamatory statements. Worthington refused.

Matrixx filed a motion to compel Worthington to answer the questions, and the trial court granted the motion. Worthington and Barbary Coast sought review, arguing that the posters’ First Amendment right to speak anonymously should prohibit the disclosure of their identities. On appeal, the court affirmed the decision of the lower court, holding that Worthington and Barbary Coast did not have standing to invoke the anonymous posters’ First Amendment rights.

In reaching its decision, the court distinguished two other cases in which the recipient of a subpoena did have standing to challenge the unmasking of another person. In the cases of In re Subpoena Duces Tecum to America Online, Inc., 2000 WL 1210372 (Va. App. 2000), and In re Verizon Internet Services, 257 F.Supp.2d 244 (D.D.C. 2003)(both cases reversed on other grounds), Internet service providers did not have to identify anonymous customers pursuant to subpoenas served on the ISPs. In each of these cases, the courts held that the ISPs had standing to assert the customers’ rights to remain anonymous, because the customer relationships were sufficiently close. In this case, however, the court held that “by contrast, we are presented with no ‘close relationship’ — or, indeed, any relationship — between appellants and the individuals for whom they are seeking First Amendment protection.”

Matrixx Initiatives, Inc. v. Doe, — Cal.Rptr.3d —, 2006 WL 999933 (Cal.App. 6 Dist, April 18, 2006).

Delaware decision defines standards for protecting anonymous Internet speech

The recent case of Doe v. Cahill, coming to us from the Supreme Court of Delaware, illustrates a court’s willingness to ensure adequate safeguards to protect anonymous speech on the Internet.

In September of 2004, an anonymous visitor to a Smyrna, Delaware community weblog posted comments about city councilman Patrick Cahill, which Cahill believed to be damaging to his reputation. Cahill filed a defamation lawsuit. Because he did not know the identity of the anonymous commenter, he filed suit against “John Doe,” and began procedures under Delaware law to discover Doe’s true identity. Cahill learned that Doe used Comcast as an Internet service provider, and obtained a court order requiring Comcast to disclose Doe’s real name.

As required by the federal Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984, at 47 U.S.C. §551(c)(2), Comcast notified Doe of the request for information about his identity. [More on the Cable Communications Policy Act.] In response, Doe sought an emergency protective order to bar Comcast from turning over his information. The trial court denied Doe’s request for a protective order, and held that Cahill could obtain Doe’s identity from Comcast. Doe appealed directly to the Delaware Supreme Court. On appeal, the Court reversed the lower court’s decision.

The Supreme Court determined that the trial court had applied too low a standard in testing whether Comcast should be ordered to turn over Doe’s identity. The trial court had applied a “good faith” standard, namely, that disclosure was warranted because Cahill had established through his pleadings that he had a legitimate, good faith basis on which to bring the defamation claim.

The Supreme Court held that such a low standard was not sufficient to protect one’s right to speak anonymously. The lower, good faith standard might encourage meritless lawsuits brought merely to uncover the identities of anonymous critics. Accordingly, the Supreme Court adopted a standard “that appropriately balances one person’s right to speak anonymously against another person’s right to protect his reputation.”

The Court held that before a defamation plaintiff can obtain the identity of an anonymous defendant through the compulsory discovery process, he must come forth with facts sufficient to defeat a summary judgment motion. Said another way, before a Delaware court will order an anonymous speaker to be unmasked, the plaintiff has to present evidence creating a genuine issue of material fact for each element of the defamation claim.

Applying that standard to the present case, the court held that “no reasonable person could have interpreted [Doe’s] statements to be anything other than opinion.” The court observed that its conclusion was supported by the “unreliable nature of assertions posted in chat rooms and on blogs.” The case was dismissed.

Doe v. Cahill, — A.2d —, 2005 WL 2455266 (Del., October 5, 2005).
[Full text of decision in PDF]

Footnote to Councilman: no action for malicious prosecution

Court dismisses civil suit brought by defendant in high-profile ECPA case

If you track court cases dealing with the Internet, you may be familiar with last month’s First Circuit decision in the case of U.S. v. Councilman, 418 F.3d 67 (1st Cir. 2005), which held that interception of e-mail messages in temporary storage is a criminal violation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. [More on U.S. v. Councilman]

The defendant in that case, Bradford Councilman, filed a separate civil lawsuit against two of his former employees, claiming that they made false statements to the police which led to Councilman’s arrest and indictment for unlawfully intercepting e-mail messages. Councilman alleged causes of action for malicious prosecution, abuse of process, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The case had been proceeding in federal court, but was dismissed last week.

The court held that Councilman’s malicious prosecution claim failed because the police had already initiated a criminal investigation before contacting the defendant former employees. The defendants, by providing information about Councilman (whether accurate or not) did not initiate the prosecution. Their statements to the police were therefore privileged under Massachusetts law, and they could not be liable for any of the tort claims Councilman had brought against them.

It is important to note that a necessary element in a civil action for malicious prosecution is that the underlying criminal action, wrongly initiated, ended in a favorable disposition for the accused. Had the court found that the former employees did “initiate” the prosecution, the matter would have been thrown into a problematic situation, given last month’s First Circuit decision which reversed the dismissal of the indictment against Councilman. The court briefly commented on this notion, observing that “it cannot be said at this time that the prosecution has terminated in favor of the plaintiff.”

Councilman v. Alibris, Inc., — F.Supp.2d —, 2005 WL 2225802 (D.Mass., September 13, 2005).

“Terms and Conditions of Sale” provided by hyperlink created binding contract

[Thanks to the Technology & Marketing Law Blog and the ContractsProf Blog for alerting me to this case.]

Several purchasers of Dell computers filed a class action lawsuit against Dell in an Illinois court. Dell moved to dismiss the action, or to compel arbitration, based on an arbitration clause found in the “Terms and Conditions of Sale” that were available for viewing by clicking on a blue hyperlink found on each of the pages that website visitors saw during the purchasing process.

Although the plaintiffs admitted that by purchasing computers online they entered into contracts with Dell, they claimed that the Terms and Conditions of Sale containing the arbitration clause were not a part of the contracts. They argued that merely making a link to the Terms and Conditions of Sale available was insufficient, and that Dell should have required purchasers to affirmatively manifest their assent by clicking an “I Accept” box.

Dell argued that it had done enough to make purchasers aware of the Terms and Conditions of Sale. It had provided the link by means of a contrasting blue hyperlink. It had also stated on numerous pages on its website, used for marketing and for purchase, that all sales were subject to the Terms and Conditions of Sale.

The trial court determined that the online terms and conditions had not been “adequately communicated” to the plaintiffs, because Dell did not “provide a display text on the Web site that manifested a clear assent to the terms and conditions,” and because the terms and conditions themselves were not visible on the pages viewed while placing the orders. Accordingly, the trial court denied Dell’s motion to dismiss or to compel arbitration. Dell sought review. The appellate court reversed.

On appeal, the court held that the plaintiffs were properly made aware of the terms and conditions. The hyperlinks appearing on the web pages made the pages “the same as a multipage written paper contract. The blue hyperlink simply takes a person to another page of the contract, similar to turning the page of a written paper contract.” The contrasting blue color of the hyperlink served to make it conspicuous. Finally, the court noted that because the plaintiffs were purchasing computers online, they were not novices, and should have known that more information would have been available by clicking on the link.

Because the Terms and Conditions of Sale were part of the online contract, the court held that the arbitration clause applied. It reversed the decision of the trial court and remanded it with directions to either stay or dismiss the action so that the parties could arbitrate their disputes.

Hubbert v. Dell Corp., — N.E.2d —, 2005 WL 1968774 (Ill.App. 5th Dist., August 12, 2005).

Case demonstrates court’s reaction to glitches in electronic case filing

Eighth Circuit overturns ruling against party whose counsel did not receive electronic notification of court orders.

In the recent case of American Boat Co. v. Unknown Sunken Barge, which was a tort action against the United States, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri granted summary judgment against plaintiff American Boat on September 2, 2003. American Boat moved for reconsideration, but the motion was denied on November 5, 2003.

Although they were signed up for the court’s electronic filing system, local counsel for American Boat did not receive notification of the order denying the motion for reconsideration. Lead counsel, who was not signed up for electronic filing and therefore expected to get a paper copy of the order, never received such paper copy. He first learned of the order when he checked the PACER system on March 4, 2004.

Because the time for appeal had passed, American Boat filed a motion to reopen the time for filing an appeal. The district court denied the motion to reopen, finding that notice of the November 5 order was received, notwithstanding counsel’s statements to the contrary.

American Boat moved for reconsideration of the denial of the motion to reopen. It submitted an affidavit of a computer expert who stated “with near to absolute certainty” that the notification e-mail to local counsel never arrived. During the pendency of this motion to reconsider, lead counsel signed up for the court’s electronic filing system. He never received electronic notification, however, when the court denied the motion on August 12, 2004.

In light of the continuing problems with electronic notification, American Boat filed a second motion to reconsider the denial of the motion to reopen. This time it submitted the affidavit of another computer expert which stated that lead counsel did not receive email notification of the denial of the motion to reconsider. The district court denied this motion as well, and American Boat sought review with the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed and remanded.

The appellate court noted that the district court correctly presumed the delivery of email messages since they showed up as entries on the clerk’s docket sheet. However, the appellate court concluded that the district court abused its discretion in denying American Boat an evidentiary hearing on whether the presumption of delivery had been rebutted, and remanded to the district court for such a determination.

The court observed that the newness of the electronic filing system made it likely there were glitches yet to be worked out. Furthermore, the fact that attorneys who had not signed up for electronic notification did not receive paper copies demonstrated possible flaws in the system. Finally, one of the government’s attorneys in the matter also reported not receiving electronic notification. In light of these factors, American Boat had “made a sufficient showing to at least be entitled to an evidentiary hearing on the issue of whether they have adequately rebutted the presumption [of delivery].”

American Boat Co. v. Unknown Sunken Barge, — F.3d —, 2005 WL 1949693 (August 16, 2005).

Google and the reasonable person

You may recall a posting on this site from a few weeks ago about an Indiana court that concluded a plaintiff who hadn’t consulted the Internet failed to exercise due diligence in locating a defendant for service of process. A court in West Virginia has taken the centrality of Google in everyday life one step further. The judge in the case of Plemons v. Gale, 2005 WL 1798335, (S.D.W.Va., Jul 27, 2005) equates doing a Google search with the “reasonable person standard.” Here’s an extensive quote from the case:

“In the ‘time, place, and circumstances’ of this case, one who actually wanted to inform Ms. Plemons that her house was to be conveyed because of a failure to pay roughly $3,000 in taxes and fees would not have looked for her in the dusty corners of the Kanawha County record room. In the age of telephones, internet search engines, online newspapers, online people-finders, and readily available credit reports, most people can easily find someone. Thus, if a reasonable person were charged with the duty of locating Ms. Plemons in the relatively small city of Charleston, West Virginia, it is my belief that he would be likely to employ ‘Google’ to find her name, call information to learn her telephone number, contact her lending bank, or call her ex-husband. Instead, Advantage searched the public records for Ms. Plemons’ address and mailed written notices to two of the addresses contained therein. When the notices were found to be undeliverable, Advantage did nothing further. I continue to believe that those efforts failed to meet the constitutional standards of due process.” [Emphasis added.]

Internet access during trial provides unfair advantage

The New York Workers’ Compensation Board allowed the State Insurance Fund to install a wireless network in the Syracuse office of the Board, enabling the Fund’s attorneys to access their files during proceedings before the Board. Other attorneys appearing before the Board were denied wireless Internet access. The Central New York Workers’ Compensation Bar Association, as well as a couple individual plaintiffs, filed suit against the Board, alleging that its policy to allow the Fund but not other attorneys access to a wireless network was arbitrary and capricious. The trial court agreed, and the decision was affirmed on appeal.

The court held that although the fund is an agency of the State, in litigation it is considered to be a separate entity. Thus, it is of the same status as any other litigant appearing in proceedings before the Board, and not entitled to special treatment.

In affirming that the Board had acted arbitrarily and capriciously by allowing Internet access to the Fund’s attorneys, the court found that:

“The wireless access sought by the Fund provides the Fund an unfair competitive advantage in litigated matters as the installed hardware permits only the Fund’s attorneys access to their case files in the heat of litigation, putting at their fingertips volumes of meaningful exhibits, legal research and other information, with no similar provision for claimants and the myriad of other insurance carriers whose representatives appear before the Board.”

Matter of Central New York Workers’ Comp. Bar Assn. v. State of New York Workers’ Compensation Bd., 2005 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 2877 (March 18, 2005).

Time Warner ordered to identify sender of offensive e-mail

In the case of Fitch v. Doe, the Supreme Court of Maine has held that while the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 generally prohibits a cable operator’s disclosure of subscriber information, an exception provided in the Act allows disclosure to nongovernmental entities pursuant to court order, so long as the subscriber has received notification thereof.

On Christmas Eve 2003, an anonymous person sent an email under Plaintiff Fitch’s name with a derogatory cartoon attached. Fitch filed suit in Maine state court against the unknown sender of the email (John or Jane Doe). Fitch then sought an order directing Time Warner (the ISP of the account from which the message was sent) to disclose Doe’s identity. Doe’s counsel objected to the disclosure, arguing that the disclosure was forbidden by the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984, 47 U.S.C.A. § 551 (the “Act”), and that Doe did not consent to allow Time Warner to disclose his identity. The trial court ordered disclosure, finding that Doe’s agreement with Time Warner provided such consent.

Doe appealed to the Maine Supreme Court, but the lower court’s decision to order disclosure was affirmed. Although the court concluded that the lower court erred in determining Doe had consented to disclosure, such disclosure was authorized under an exception found in the Act.

The Act restricts cable providers from releasing information about their subscribers without the consent of the subscriber concerned. Section 551(c)(2)(B) of the Act authorizes disclosure of personally identifiable information if the disclosure is, “subject to subsection (h) of [Section 551], made pursuant to a court order authorizing such disclosure, if the subscriber is notified of such order by the person to whom the order is directed.”

Section 551(h) provides that when a governmental entity is seeking disclosure, it must show by clear and convincing evidence that criminal activity is reasonably suspected. Doe had argued that the reference to Section 551(h) served to “meld” the entire exception into one applicable only when the government seeks information about a subscriber. Because Fitch was not a governmental entity, Doe argued that the exception to the restriction of disclosure should not apply.

The court disagreed, and held that 511(h) served merely to impose a higher standard when the government seeks disclosure of information about a cable subscriber. Because Fitch was not a governmental entity, Time Warner was permitted to release the information in response to a valid court order, so long as it had given notice to Doe. The record established that Doe had received such notice, thus the Act did not bar Fitch’s access to the requested information.

Fitch v. Doe, — A.2d —-, 2005 WL 627569 (S.Ct. Me., March 18, 2005).

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