The Ugly Side of Reputation Management: What Attorneys and Judges Need to Know

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was no such thing as the Internet.  Information and news came from your local newspaper, television, or radio channel.  Research was done in good old fashioned books, often at your local school, university or public library.  If the content you were seeking was “old” chances are you had to go look at microfiche. For those that are young enough to have no clue what I’m talking about, watch this video. Then BOOM! Along came the internet! Well, sort of.  It was a slow work in progress, but by 1995 the internet was fully commercialized here in the U.S.  Anyone else remember that horrible dial up sound followed by the coolest thing you ever heard in your life “You’ve got mail!“?

As technology and the internet evolved so did the ease of gathering and sharing information; not only by the traditional media, but by every day users of the internet.  I’ve dedicated an entire series of blogs called Fighting Fair on the Internet just to the topic of people’s online use.  Not every person who has access to the internet publishes flattering content (hello Free Speech) nor do they necessarily post truthful content (ewww, defamation).  Of course, not all unflattering content is defamatory, so it’s not illegal to be a crap talker, but some people try to overcome it anyway.  Either way, whether the information is true or false, such content has brought about a whole new industry for people and businesses looking for relief: reputation management.

Leave it to the entrepreneurial types to see a problem and find a lucrative solution to the same.  While there are always legitimate ethical reputation management companies and lawyers out there doing business the right way (and kudos to all of them)…there are those that are, shall we say, operating through more “questionable” means.  Those that want to push the ethical envelope often come up with “proprietary” methods to help clients which are often sold as removal or internet de-listing/de-indexing techniques that may include questionable defamation cases and court orders, use of bogus DMCA take down notices, or “black hat” methods.  In this article I am only going to focus on the questionable defamation cases that result in an order for injunctive relief.

BACKGROUND: QUESTIONABLE DEFAMATION CASES AND COURT ORDERS

UCLA Professor, Eugene Volokh and Public Citizen litigation attorney, Paul Alan Levy, started shedding public light on concerns relating to questionable court orders a few years ago.  In an amicus brief, submit to the California Supreme Court in support of Yelp, Inc. in Hassell v. BirdVolokh offered his findings to the court discussing how default proceedings are “far too vulnerable to manipulation to be trustworthy.”

As the brief says:

Injunctions aimed at removing or deindexing allegedly libelous material are a big practice area, and big business….But this process appears to be rife with fraud and with other behavior that renders it inaccurate. And this is unsurprising, precisely because many such injunctions are aimed at getting action from third parties (such as Yelp or Google) that did not appear in the original proceedings. The adversarial process usually offers some assurance of accurate fact finding, because the defendant has the opportunity and incentive to point out the plaintiff’s misstatements. But many of the injunctions in such cases are gotten through default judgments or stipulations, with no meaningful adversarial participation.

The brief further pointed to seven (7) different methods that plaintiffs were using to obtain default judgments:

(1) injunctions gotten in lawsuits brought against apparently fake defendants;

(2) injunctions gotten using fake notarizations;

(3) injunctions gotten in lawsuits brought against defendants who very likely did not author the supposedly defamatory material;

(4) injunctions that seek the deindexing of official and clearly nonlibelous government documents – with no notice to the documents’ authors – often listed in the middle of a long list of website addresses submitted to a judge as part of a default judgment;

(5) injunctions that seek the deindexing of otherwise apparently truthful mainstream articles from websites like CNN, based on defamatory comments that the plaintiffs or the plaintiffs’ agents may have posted themselves, precisely to have an excuse to deindex the article;

(6) injunctions that seek the deindexing of an entire mainstream media article based on the source’s supposedly recanting a quote, with no real determination of whether the source was lying earlier, when the article was written, or is lying now, prompted by the lawsuit;

(7) over 40 “injunctions” sent to online service providers that appear to be outright forgeries.

Well, isn’t that fun?  Months after the brief was filed in Hassell, Volokh published another article with the title “Solvera Group, accused by Texas AG of masterminding fake-defendant lawsuits, now being sued by Consumer Opinion over California lawsuits.”  What was clear from all of this is that website owners who have been victims of the scheme are likely watching and the authorities are too.  The US Attorney Generals office in the District of Rhode Island and the State of Texas both took interest in these situations…and I suppose it is possible that more will be uncovered as time goes on.

So how are these parties getting away with this stuff?  With the help of unscrupulous reputation management companies, associated defamation attorneys…and, unfortunately, trusting judges.  Some judges have taken steps to correct the problem once the issue was brought to their attention.  As for the attorneys involved, you have to wonder if they were actually “duped” as this Forbes article mentions or do they know what they are doing?  Either way, it’s not a good situation.  This isn’t to necessarily say that every attorney that is questioned about this stuff is necessarily guilty of perpetrating a fraud upon the court or anything like that.  However, it should serve as a cautionary warning that this stuff is real, these schemes are real, clients can be really convincing, and if one isn’t careful and fails to conduct appropriate and precautionary due diligence on a client and/or the documents provided to you by a client…it could easily be a slippery slope into Padora’s box.   After all, no one wants to be investigated by their state bar association (or worse) for being involved with this kind of mess.

Yes, there have been lots of great articles and discussion shedding light on the subject but the question then becomes, how do you tell the difference between a legitimate situation and a questionable situation?  The answer: recognize red flags and question everything.

RED FLAGS THAT SHOULD CAUSE YOU PAUSE

In December of 2016 I had the pleasure of traveling to Miami, FL for the Internet Lawyer Leadership Summit conference to present, for CLE, on multiple topics including this subject.  At that time I provided the group with some “red flags” based upon information I had then.  Since that time I have gained an even greater knowledge base on this subject simply by paying attention to industry issues and reading, a lot.  I have now compiled the following list of cautionary flags with some general examples, and practical advice that, at minimum, should have you asking a few more questions:

RED FLAGS FOR ATTORNEYS

  • If the entity or person feeding you the “lead” is in the reputation management industry.  You want to do some due diligence.  You could be dealing with a total above board individual or entity , and the lead may be 100% legit, BUT the industry seems to consist of multiple “companies” that often lead back to the same individual(s) and just because they are well known doesn’t necessarily mean they are operating above board.  Do your homework before you agree to be funneled any leads.
  • If the client is asking you to make some unusual adjustments to your fee agreement.  Your fee agreement is likely pretty static.  If the client is requesting some unusual adjustments to your agreement that make you feel uncomfortable, you might want to decline representation.
  • If the client already has “all of the documents” and you don’t actually deal with the defendant. We all want to trust our clients, but as some counsel already experienced, just accepting what your client tells you and/or provides you as gospel without a second thought can land you in hot water.  Consider asking to meet the defendant in person or have them appear before a person licensed to give an oath and check identification, such as a notary public of YOUR choosing to ensure the defendant is real and that the testimony that they are giving in the declaration or affidavit is real.  You want to make sure everything adds up and communication by telephone or email may not protect you enough.  When it comes to documents provided by the client, or the alleged post author, watch for the following:
    • Ensure that the address listed on any affidavit or other document isn’t completely bogus.  Run a search on Google – is it even a real address?  For all you know you could be getting an address to the local train track.
    • Ensure that any notary stamp on an affidavit is inconsistent with where the affiant purports to live. It will rarely make sense for an affiant list their address as, for example, Plains, New York but the notary stamp suggests the notary is based out of Sacramento, California. It will make even less sense if the affiant supposedly lives out of country, but is being notarized by a notary in the states.
    • Ensure that the notary is actually a real notary.  You can typically find record of notaries with the Secretary of State that the notary is in.  Make sure they are a real person.  If you really want to be sure that they actually signed your document, and that it wasn’t “lifted” from elsewhere (yay technology) check in with the notary and/or see if their records are on file somewhere publicly that you can check.
  • If the entity alleged to be the plaintiff isn’t actually a real entity in the state that they are purporting in the complaint to be from.  If the plaintiff is supposed to be ABC Ventures, LLC out of San Diego, California, there should be a record of ABC Ventures, LLC actually listed, and active, on the California Corporation Commission website.  The people that you are talking to also should, in theory, be the members/managers of such entity too.  For example, if you are always talking to a “secretary” you might want to insist on a more direct contact.
  • If the person or entity listed to be the plaintiff isn’t actually listed in the subject URL in the complaint.  If a plaintiff is going to bring a case, they should at least have standing to do so.  You should be cautious of any plaintiffs that aren’t actually at issue or fails to have a valid direct connection that would give them standing to bring the claim.
  • If the subject post doesn’t contain any defamatory statements in the first place.  Just because a post isn’t flattering doesn’t mean that it is actually defamatory.  Similarly, public documents aren’t typically seen as defamatory either. Who is saying it is false? Why is the statement false? What evidence supports the allegation that it is false?  
  • If the subject posting is outside of the statute of limitations for bringing claims in the state in which you intend on filing.  Now I know that some may disagree with me, and there may be bar opinions in different states that suggest otherwise, however, if you are presented with a post that is outside of the statute of limitations to bring a claim for defamation, subject to the single publication rule, and there is no real reason for tolling (like it was held in a secret document not generally public – which pretty much excludes the items on the internet) that may be of concern to you.  I wrote before on why statute of limitations is important, especially if you are the type to follow ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 3.1.  Even here in Arizona the bar has raised in disciplinary proceedings, in connection with other infractions, concerns about bringing claims outside of the statute of limitations, citing a violation of ER 8.4(d).  See generally, In re Aubuchon233 Ariz. 62 (Ariz. 2013).
  • If a case was filed in a wholly separate state from the Plaintiff and Defendant and you are asked to be “local counsel” to marshal documents to court or simply to submit it to a search engine like Google.  It is not improbable that local counsel will be called to assist with basic filings or to submit an order to Google.  It may be possible that such documents contain questionable materials.  It’s always a good idea to review the materials and give it a heightened level of scrutiny before just marshaling them off to the court or search engine.  This is especially true if the Plaintiff is no longer associated with prior counsel and is just looking for a different lawyer to help with this “one thing” as if a submission from an attorney bears more weight that anyone else submitting it.
  • If the plaintiff claims to already know who the author of a subject alleged defamatory post is, yet the post itself is anonymous.  Yes, it is possible that based on an author’s content, and how much detail is placed in such post, that one might be able to figure out who the author is. However, in my experience, many authors tend to write just vague enough to keep themselves anonymous.  If that is the case, without a subpoena to the content host, how does one actually know who the author is?  Some states like Arizona have specific notice requirements for subpoenas that are seeing identifying user information which require notice being posted in the same manner, through the same medium, in which the subject posting was made.  If a notice isn’t present on the website, there likely wasn’t a subpoena (assuming the website requires strict compliance with the law). Mobilisa, Inc. v. Doe, 170 P.3d 712, 217 Ariz. 103 (Ariz. App., 2007).
  • If the case was settled in RECORD TIME.  Often these matters are being “resolved” within a few weeks to only a couple months.  As most of us know, the wheels of justice are SLOW.
  • If the case is settled without any answers or discovery being done.  This goes to my prior point about knowing who the real author is, or, for that matter, that the allegations in a subject post are even false.
  • If notice about the case was not personally served by a process server.  Many states allow certified mailing for service.  Do you really know who is signing that little green form and accepting service?  Was some random person paid to sign that?

RED FLAGS FOR JUDGES (Consider all of the above generally plus the following)

  • If a Complaint is filed and shortly thereafter a stipulated judgment is presented requesting injunctive relief without the defendant ever actually making an appearance.  This seems to be one of the more popular tactics.  A way to curb this kind of abuse would be to hold a hearing where all parties must appear, in person (especially the named defendant signing the stipulation) before the court before any such injunctive order is signed and entered.
  • If an attorney files an affidavit of making a good faith attempt in order to locate the defendant but discovery was never conducted upon the hosting website.  Many sites will respond to discovery so long as their state laws for obtaining such information (like Arizona’s Mobilisa case) is followed.  Arguably, it is disingenuous for an attorney to say they have tried when they really haven’t.  Chances are, the real author may not even know about the case and entering a default judgment under such circumstances deprives them of the opportunity to appear and defend against the matter.
  •  If you order the parties to appear and then suddenly the case gets dismissed.  It thwarts the scheme when the court requests the parties to appear.  If this happens, in a defamation related case, it could be seen as a red flag.  The plaintiff may very well try to dismiss the action and simply refile under a different plaintiff and defendant name but for the same URL that was originally filed in the prior dismissed action.
  • If the order for injunctive relief contains URLs that were not originally part of the Complaint.  Sneaky plaintiffs and their counsel may attempt to include other postings, from the same or different websites, that are not really at issue and/or that were arguably written by other individuals.  Make sure that the URLs listed on the order are all the same as what is listed on the complaint.
  • If the complaint contains a host of posts, with wide range of dates, and the syntax of the posts are different yet the plaintiff claims that it was written by the same person.  In my experience, very rarely (though it does happen) will one person go on a binge and write a bunch of different posts about one person or entity.  There are typically more than one author involved so if any statement to the alternative should raise a red flag.

Some journalists that have been tracking these kinds of matters think that these schemes may be nearing an end.  I would like to think so, however, in my opinion these problems are far from over unless unsuspecting attorneys, judges, and even websites and search engines get a little more cautious about how they process these court orders for content removal, especially if they are older orders.  I have already discussed why I thought search engine de-indexing isn’t necessarily a viable reputation management solution and in part that is because, arguably, at least for now, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act  bars injunctive relief, i.e., there is no obligation for websites to remove content anyway.  If a platform or search engine decides to remove content or otherwise de-index content, at least here in the U.S., they are doing so based upon their own company policy…not some legal duty.

In a perfect world none of these issues would exist. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in and the best we can do is be vigilant. Hopefully, through this article, I have provided some food for thought for attorneys and judges alike. You never know when such a situation will arise.

All information contained in this blog (www.beebelawpllc.blog.com) is meant to be for general informational purposes only and should not be misconstrued as legal advice or relied upon.  All legal questions should be directed to a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction.
Advertisements

“Internet Law” explained

For some reason, every time one says “lawyer” people tend to think of criminal law, family law or personal injury law.  Perhaps because those are very common.  Most people even understand the concept of a corporate or business lawyer, someone who handles trust and estates, or even one that handles intellectual property.  However, when we say “Internet Law” many people get the most confused look on their face and say: “What the heck is that?” If that is you, you’re in good company.  And, to be fair, the Internet really hasn’t been around all that long.

If you were to read the “IT law” page on Wikipedia you’d see a section related to “Internet Law” but even that page falls a little short on a solid explanation – mostly because the law that surrounds the Internet is incredibly vast and is always evolving.

When we refer to “Internet Law” we are really talking about how varying legal principles and surrounding legislation influence and govern the internet, and it’s use.  For example, “Internet Law” can incorporate many different areas of law such as privacy law, contract law and intellectual property law…all which were developed before the internet was even a thing.  You also have to think how the Internet is global and how laws and application of those laws can vary by jurisdiction.

Internet Law can include the following:

  • Laws relating to website design
  • Laws relating to online speech and censorship of the same
  • Laws relating to how trademarks are used online
  • Laws relating to what rights a copyright holder may have when their images or other content is placed and used online
  • Laws relating to Internet Service Providers and what liabilities they may have based upon data they process or store or what their users do on their platforms
  • Laws relating to resolving conflicts over domain names
  • Laws relating to advertisements on websites, through apps, and through email
  • Laws relating to how goods and services are sold online

As you can see just from the few examples listed above, a lot goes into “Internet Law” and many Internet Law attorneys will pick only a few of these areas to focus on because it can be a challenge just to keep up.  Indeed, unlike other areas of law, “Internet Law” is not static and is always evolving.

Do you think you have an Internet Law related question? If you are in the state of Arizona and are looking for that solid “friend in the lawyering business” consider Beebe Law, PLLC!  We truly enjoy helping our  business and individual clients and strive to meet and exceed their goals!  Contact us today.

All information contained in this blog (www.beebelawpllc.blog.com) is meant to be for general informational purposes only and should not be misconstrued as legal advice or relied upon.  All legal questions should be directed to a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction.

 

 

 

 

Section 230 is alive and well in California (for now) | Hassell v. Bird

Last week, on July 2, 2018 the Supreme Court of California overturned rulings that arguably threatened the ability for online platform users to share their thoughts and opinions freely by ruling in favor of Yelp in the hotly contested and widely watched Hassell v. Bird case.

For those that aren’t familiar with the underlying facts, I offer the following quick background:

In 2014 a dispute arose between California attorney, Dawn Hassell and her former client, Ava Bird when Bird posted a negative review of Hassell on the popular business review site, Yelp.  Hassell claimed that the content of the post was, among other things, defamatory and commenced an action against Bird for the same in the Superior Court of the County of San Francisco, Case No. CGC-13-530525. Bird failed to appear, and the Court entered a default order in favor of Hassell.  There is question as to whether Bird was actually served.  In addition, the court ordered Yelp, a non-party to the case who did not receive notice of the hearing, to remove reviews purportedly associated with Bird without explanation and enjoined Yelp from publishing any reviews from the suspected Bird accounts in the future.  Yelp challenged this order, but the court upheld its ruling.

Hoping for relief, Yelp appealed the decision to the California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, Division Four, Case No. A143233. Unfortunately for Yelp, the Appellate Court offered no relief and held that: Yelp was not aggrieved by the judgment; the default judgment which including language requesting non-party Yelp to remove the reviews from the website was proper; that Yelp had no constitutional right to notice and hearing on the trial court’s order to remove the reviews from the website; that the order to remove the reviews from Yelp and to prohibit publication of future reviews was not an improper or overly broad prior restraint; and that the Communications Decency Act (“CDA” or “Section 230”) did not bar the trial court’s order to remove the reviews.

The Appellate Court’s ruling was clearly contrary to precedent in California and elsewhere around the country. Yelp appealed the matter to the California Supreme Court, Case No. S235968, to “protect its First Amendment right as a publisher, due process right to a hearing in connection with any order that targets speech on Yelp’s website, and to preserve the integrity of the CDA” according to the blog post written by Aaron Schur, Yelp’s Deputy General Counsel. While Yelp led the charge, they were not left to fight alone.

The internet rallied in support of Yelp.  Dozens of search engines, platforms, non-profit organizations and individuals who value the free sharing of information and ideas contributed amicus letters and amicus briefs (I co-authored an amicus brief for this case) in support of Yelp, including assistance from those like UCLA Law Professor and Washington Post contributor Eugene Volokh and Public Citizen Litigator, Paul Alan Levy, whose work spotlighted the ease in which bogus court orders and default judgments are obtained for the sole purpose of getting search engines like Google to de-index content.  In case you are wondering, bogus court orders and false DMCA schemes are indeed a real problem that many online publishers face.

On April 3, 2018 the California Supreme Court heard oral argument on the case. On July 2, 2018 the Supreme Court released its 102 page opinion in a 3-1-3 decision (three on a plurality opinion, one swing concurring, and three dissenting via two opinions) holding that Hassell’s failure to name Yelp as a defendant, an end run-around tactic, did not preclude the application of CDA immunity.  The court clearly stated “we must decide whether plaintiffs’ litigation strategy allows them to accomplish indirectly what Congress has clearly forbidden them to achieve directly.  We believe the answer is no.” Based upon this win for the Internet, at least for now, online publishers in California (or those who have had this case thrown at them in demand letters or pleadings since the original trial and appellate court rulings) can breathe a sigh of relief that they cannot be forced to remove third-party content.

Aaron Shur made an important statement in concluding the Yelp blog post “…litigation is never a good substitute for customer service and responsiveness, and had the law firm avoided the courtroom and moved on, it would have saved time and money, and been able to focus more on the cases that truly matter the most – those of its clients.”  It’s important in both our professional and personal life to not get stuck staring at one tree when there is a whole forest of beauty around us.

While this is indeed a win, and returns the law back to status quo in California, it does raise some concern for some that certain comments in the opinion are signaling Congress to modify Section 230, again (referring to the recent enactment of FOSTA).  Santa Clara Law Professor, Eric Goldman broke down the Court’s lengthy opinion (a good read if you don’t want to spend the time to review the full opinion) while pointing out that “fractured opinions raise some doubts about the true holding of [the] case.”  The big question is where will things go from here?  Indeed, only time will tell.

Citation: Hassell v. Bird, 2018 WL 3213933 (Cal. Sup. Ct. July 2, 2018)

Arizona Defamation Law

Now that nearly anyone can get online and “speek freely” it is no wonder that there is a rise in defmation related claims.  If only people would have read the Fighting Fair on the Internet series sooner?  Indeed, so many people are either “That Guy” or are on the receiving end of “That Guy.”  Hey, I’m not judging, I’m just telling it as I see it.

As adults that may not have grown up with the internet, many of us were thrust into online situations that, quite frankly, we weren’t equipped to handled.  And now, kids are even getting the short end of the lesson learning stick because of it.

So let’s talk about defamation.  Of course, it’s important to point out that laws vary from state to state and if you are not in Arizona, the following information may not apply to you.

ARIZONA DEFAMATION LAW – THE BASICS

The Elements of Defamation in Arizona.

In Arizona, as outlined in Morris v. Warner, 106 Ariz. 55, 62 (Ariz.Ct.App. 1988), the elements of a defamation claim are:

  1. a false statment concerning the plaintiff;
  2. the statement was defamatory;
  3. the statement was published to a third party;
  4. the requisite fault on the part of the defendant; and
  5. the plaintiff was damaged as a result of the statement.

In order for a statement to be considered “defamatory” the statement made must be false and bring the alleged defamed person into disrepute, contempt, or ridicule, or impeach his/her honesty, integrity, virtue, or reputation.  That is outlined in a case called Godbehere v. Phoenix Newspapers, Inc., 162 Ariz.335, 341 (Ariz. 1989).

Spoken “defamation” is called slander.   Think of rumor telling in the locker room, or maybe even bigger, like saying something on live public television.

Written “defamation” is called libel.  Given the popularity of the internet now, this is what we see happening more often.  Think of postings you see people post online.  Those arguments that get heated and people start making up false statements…yeah, that could be libel.

Distinguishing between defamation per se and defamation per quod.

Distinctions between defamation per se and defamation per quod in Arizona is important because it effects the type of damages that the plaintiff must allege in order to prevail on their claim.

  • Slander per se is a statement that does any of the following:
    • Imputes the commission of a crime involving moral turpitude (meaning an act or behavior that gravely violates the sentiment or accepted standard of the community.); or
      • Examples of this are false accusations that some has commit rape, forgery, robbery, and solicitation by prostitutes.
    • Tends to injure a person in his profession, trade, or business; or
      • For example, falsely telling someone that a business took your money without providing the service promissed.
    • States that someone has a contageous or vanerial disease, or that a woman is not chaste (meaning that she is not pure from unlawful sexual conduct).
      • For example, falsely saying that someone one has AIDs.
  • Slander per quod is basically a slanderous statement that does not otherwise fit under the definition of slander per se.
  • Libel per se is a statement written which “on their face and without the aid of any extrinsic matter” tend to “bring any person into disprpute, contempt or ridicule” or “impeach the honestly, integrity, virtue or reputation.”
  • Libel per quod is bascially a written statement that on its face doesn’t fall within the definition of defamation BUT by which special circumstances actually make it fall within that definition.

Statute of Limitations for Defamation in Arizona

As I discussed in a prior article, it is important that people understand Statute of Limitations.  They are there for a reason and, in my view, counsel that file claims that are barred by the statute of limitation are doing nothing more than wasting client resources and, arguably, committing an ethical violation.

The statute of limitations for defamation in Arizona is one (1) year.  A.R.S. § 12-541(1).  There may be, in some very limited circumstances, an argument to be made that there should be a tolling of the statute of limitations in situations where the information would have been concealed from the plaintiff (like in a confidential memo) in which case the statute of limitations may run fron the date of “discovery.”

Another important fact to know is that Arizona, by state statute, applies what is referred to as the “single publication rule” or, more specifically, the “Uniform Single Publication Act.”  A.R.S. § 12-651.  The important langugage of the statute states as follows:

A. No person shall have more than one cause of action for damages for libel, slander, invasion of privacy or any other tort founded upon a single publication, exhibition or utterance, such as any one edition of a newspaper, book or magazine, any one presentation to an audience, any one broadcast over radio or television or any one exhibition of a motion picture. Recovery in any action shall include all damages for any such tort suffered by the plaintiff in all jurisdictions.

B. A judgment in any jurisdiction for or against the plaintiff upon the substantive merits of any action for damages founded upon a single publication, exhibition or utterance as described in subsection A shall bar any other action for damages by the same plaintiff against the same defendant founded upon the same publication, exhibition or utterance.

The single publication rule applies to content posted to the internet and under the “single publication rule,” a cause of action for defamation arises at the time the statement is first published; later circulation of the original publication does not start the statute of limitations anew, nor does it give rise to a new cause of action.  Larue v. Brown, 235 Ariz. 440, 333 P.3d 767 (2014)

All information contained in this blog (www.beebelawpllc.blog.com) is meant to be for general informational purposes only and should not be misconstrued as legal advice or relied upon.  All legal questions should be directed to a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction. 

Digital Millennium Copyright Act: It’s NOT for Reputation Management

Let me start out by saying that if your entire business model is based on submissions of Copyright infringement notices (“Digital Millennium Copyright Act Notices” or more commonly referred to as “DMCA Notices”), you should first have a clue about: 1) what goes in one; and 2) what circumstances will likely be found by the court as “infringement.”  If you can’t even get that right, you are doing a disservice to both your customer and are risking litigation against you.  #PetPeeve Yes, I have services in mind but they shall go unnamed.

I understand that in today’s modern world it is incredibly easy for someone to take a picture that posted of someone on the internet and then turn around and upload it elsewhere.  Indeed, depending on the circumstances, it may very well be an instance of Copyright infringement and a DMCA Notice may very well be warranted.  There is an entire legal analysis that often goes into determining Copyright infringement and those who are untrained should consult legal counsel who regularly handles Copyright infringement issues to help walk through the elements.

Notwithstanding the above, if you think that submitting a DMCA Notice to a site where such image is being used in connection with a review, in an effort to get that review or image to be removed from that site, you are likely going to fall flat and may have just wasted time and money.  Why? Because such use is more likely than not going to be considered “fair use” by a court.

The doctrine of fair use is codified at Section 107 of the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 107 (“Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work … for purposes such as criticism [and] commentary … is not an infringement of copyright.”); see also Suntrust Bank v. Houghton Mifflin Co., 268 F.3d 1257, 1265 (11th Cir.2001) (“copyright does not immunize a work from comment and criticism.”).  Similarly, courts around the country have upheld the fair use doctrine for the type of claim that most people write to review websites about, i.e., an image connected with a critical review. See Dhillon v. Does 1-10, Not Reported in F.Supp.2d, 2014 WL 722592 (N.D.Cal. 2014) (finding of fair use when Plaintiff’s professional headshot was used for article criticism and commentary); Galvin v. Illinois Republican Party, Slip Copy, 2015 WL 5304625 (N.D.Ill. 2015) (finding of fair use when Plaintiff’s photograph was used in a flyer for the purpose of criticism and commentary); Katz v. Chevaldina, Slip Copy, 2014 WL 2815496, 111 U.S.P.Q.2d 1281, (S.D.Fla. 2014) (finding unauthorized use of unflattering photo of businessman in a blog that is critical of his business practices to be fair use as a matter of law); Katz v. Google, Inc., —F.3d—, 2015 WL 5449883 (11th Cir. 2015) (finding of fair use when blogger used a photograph of a businessman, which he owned the copyright to, in a posting that was to deter others from conducting business with businessman); and Weinberg v. Dirty World, LLC, et al., 2:16-CV-09179 (C.D.Cal. Jul. 27, 2017) (finding fair use when photograph, captured from a video clip which Plaintiff had rights to, was uploaded to an online review website to “ridicule, mock, and critique” the figures in the image).

Moral of the story: if you are considering using a DMCA Notice (or hiring some Reputation Management company who uses this “method”) in effort to try and get postings or images removed from the internet…you should seriously reconsider your strategy. Chances are such companies (or law firms – I’ve seen ridiculous letters from attorneys too) are just taking your money and you may not get the results boasted about. Remember, there has to be a good faith believe that the use is infringing and when there is an abundance of case law that says “fair use”…one questions the “good faith” requirement.

Are you a business that operates a website where you regularly receive DMCA Notices? If you are in the state of Arizona and are looking for that solid “friend in the lawyering business” consider Beebe Law, PLLC!  We truly enjoy helping our  business clients meet and exceed their goals!  Contact us today.

All information contained in this blog (www.beebelawpllc.blog.com) is meant to be for general informational purposes only and should not be misconstrued as legal advice or relied upon.  All legal questions should be directed to a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction.  

 

 

Trademarks and Fair Use in Commentary

I have clients who operate websites that allow third-party content.  While NOT my clients, think about sites like Yelp, Twitter, Glassdoor, or even Facebook as examples. When you operate websites that allow other people to go online and write whatever they want, chances are you are going to see an allegation of Trademark Infringement via a cease and desist letter.  I typically see them in the context of someone alleging trademark infringement because someone is using the trademark to talk about them online – most often critically.  These cease and desist letters come in from attorneys (which I always raise an eyebrow at), reputation management companies (again which I raise an eyebrow at) and everyday people which I can better understand because many simply don’t have an understanding of this area of law.

Due to the overwhelming issues that I see with these cease and desist letters, I thought it might be good to cover some basics:

What is a Trademark?

A trademark is a word, name, symbol, or device, or any combination thereof, that is used to distinguish the goods of one person from goods that are manufactured or sold by others.  Think of it as telling people the source of the goods.  Think of “Pepsi” or “The Home Depot” for example.  Those are trademarked words that clearly distinguishes them from other sources of goods like “Coca-Cola” or “Lowe’s.”

Protecting your Trademark.

It is important to police your trademark so as to keep it from falling by the way of generocide (death by becoming too generic due to its popularity and/or significance) or being counterfeited (knock-offs). A common example of generocide includes trademarks like “escalator” for the moving staircases.  If you are curious you can read more about generic trademarks.  A common example of trademark counterfeiting includes the cheap knock-off/fake Louis Vuitton handbags.  You know, the ones that look like it’s the real deal at first glance but any savvy fashionista knows better upon closer inspection.

Trying to use Trademark as a Reputation Management Method.

Yes, there are times when you should be policing your trademark as discussed above. However, just as I cannot talk about The Home Depot without saying “The Home Depot,” the same goes for anyone else wanting to talk (or write), good or bad, about a particular brand. Such use falls under what is called “nominative fair use” which applies when a person has used one’s trademark to describe or refer to the trademark holder’s product. As with most aspects of law there are caveats and tests, however, generally speaking, just because you have a registered trademark doesn’t mean that you can submit cease and desist letters and allege trademark infringement as a way to get websites to take down content critical of your business.  Chances are, in that context, it is NOT trademark infringement.

If you are in the state of Arizona and are looking for that solid “friend in the lawyering business” consider Beebe Law, PLLC!  We truly enjoy helping our  business clients meet and exceed their goals!  Contact us today.

All information contained in this blog (www.beebelawpllc.blog.com) is meant to be for general informational purposes only and should not be misconstrued as legal advice or relied upon.  All legal questions should be directed to a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction.  

 

Five Benefits to Keeping Your Business Lawyer in the Loop

Let’s face it, the word “lawyer” for many is akin to a four letter expletive that people are offended by. Typically because it reminds people of getting sued and/or having to shell out, often unexpectedly, loads of cash that they rather have spent elsewhere…like on a vacation.  Similarly, like in all professions, not all lawyers are created equal, and not all lawyers really have their client’s financial interests at heart – after all, being a lawyer and having a law firm is a business. I personally pride myself on NOT taking advantage of my clients…giving them direction on how they can do things themselves and helping only where they REALLY need/want it…but after 18+ years in the legal field, I know that not all lawyers share my same client-friendly mindset. It is no wonder that people cringe at the thought of having to use a lawyer.

Lawyers don’t have to be a thorn in your side through.  In fact, a good lawyer can be a business’s greatest adviser and advocate – keeping in mind that a job of a lawyer is to tell you what you NEED to hear which can sometimes be very different than what you WANT to hear. All businesses should have a lawyer or two that they keep in regular contact with and it should be part of your regular business operating budget.

Before you go thinking I’m crazy, here are a few reasons that keeping your lawyer updated on the goings on of your business is advantageous:

  1. Lead Generation: Your lawyer can often be your biggest cheerleader (and lead generator) for future customers. Chances are your lawyer is tapped into many different networks.  You never know when someone they know will need your business’s products or services and a solid referral from your lawyer could be future revenue in your pocket.
  2. Idea Generator: An attorney that understands you, your business, and your goals can be an invaluable asset when it comes to creative thinking.  Brainstorming on new ideas with your lawyer may prove to be helpful in that they may be able to think of concepts outside the box for your business that you may not have already thought about.  What if that lawyer helps you generate the next million dollar idea?
  3. Cost Cutting: One thing that many lawyers are good at is organizing and streamlining processes – it’s part of the way we think.  What if your lawyer was able to give you ideas on how to streamline an existing process that will considerably help cut costs moving forward?  If a few hundred dollars for your lawyer’s time on the telephone could save you thousands of dollars in the next year, wouldn’t you do it?  Sure you would.  You’d be a fool not to.
  4.  Risk Mitigation: When you brainstorm with your lawyer on a new business concept, they can often help you plan your road-map to reach your goals and help you navigate around pitfalls that you might not even think about.  For example, when clients come to me talking about setting up a new business I always ask them the business name and ask if they have considered any reputation issues with that new business name.  The same goes for contracting issues, employee issues, etc. To that end as well, there is a LOT of bad information being circulated around on the internet. Indeed it is wise to conduct your own research but don’t you think it prudent to have your research double-checked by someone who knows where to actually find the correct information when it comes to the law? As Dr. Emily So once said, “better information means better ideas, means better protection.”
  5. Cost Effective: It is a lot cheaper to keep your lawyer up to speed on your business as it grows, even if through a short monthly 15 minute call, than it is to try and ramp your attorney up (trying to teach them everything about your business, including policy changes and the like in a short amount of time) when you suddenly need advice in order to be reactive to a situation – like when you are named as a defendant in a lawsuit.  When you are named as a defendant in a lawsuit, you typically only have 20 days (varies by court and jurisdiction) from the date that you are served with a complaint in order to determine what your defenses are and what sort of a response you will need to file.  That process becomes a whole lot easier if your attorney already knows about you, your business, it’s policies and procedures, etc.  It is also easier to to budget in a few hundred dollars a month to keep your attorney up to date then to get smacked with a request for a $20,000.00 retainer, most of that potentially being eaten up just “learning” about your business, and then having subsequent large litigation bills.

As you can see, there are many reasons to regularly communicate with your attorney and hopefully you would find it more advantageous and beneficial than paying your monthly insurance bill. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!”

If you are in the state of Arizona and are looking for that solid “friend in the lawyering business” consider Beebe Law, PLLC!  We truly enjoy helping our  business clients meet and exceed their goals!  Contact us today.

All information contained in this blog (www.beebelawpllc.blog.com) is meant to be for general informational purposes only and should not be misconstrued as legal advice or relied upon.  All legal questions should be directed to a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction.  

 

Why Google De-Indexing May NOT be an Effective Reputation Management Solution.

What reputation management companies should know, defamation lawyers probably already know, but clients either aren’t being warned about or the clients are willing to try it anyway…

So your client comes in and complains that someone defamed them on the internet.  You put on your Super Lawyer cape and rush in to save the day.  No problem, you’ll walk through the litigation, get a court order that tells Google to remove, block or otherwise de-index the content from their search engine and, viola!  Problem solved, right?  WRONG.

While I sort of eluded to these issues in my blog article troubles with defamatory online reviews and content scrapers, just because search engines like Google will agree to de-index (which arguably, at least in the United States, they are under no obligation to do thanks to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act) doesn’t mean that the content goes away.  Indeed, it remains alive in many ways:

  1. The complaint that you filed, which contained the alleged defamatory language and or copies of the alleged defamatory postings is STILL part of the public court record and, in theory, always will be – most of which is accessible online;
  2. The website that hosts the alleged defamatory content may refuse (rightfully under the current US laws) to remove the content regardless of whether or not it is found to be defamatory;
  3. Google might “de-index” but they pretty much give people a road map on where to find the information via the Lumen Database and provide, where applicable, the supporting documents like a court order which, if people are smart and interested, they can find more information about the litigation through court records; and
  4. Under most privilege laws, one could write a story about the court case, even repeating verbatim the defamatory language right out of the court record, without penalty.

Indeed, if you search out a particular name in Google, and you see, at the bottom of the search results a statement about the matter having been removed from the search engine links, chances are, someone had information removed for some reason.  Typically a link to the Lumen Database is provided by Google and parties can click on that link to learn more about why the information was removed and what links were subject to being removed from the search results.

Depending on the situation, this “de-indexing” may not even last that long.  All a website has to do, if they were so inclined, is to update the URL and that would render the original URL de-index essentially useless.  The party who submit the information would then have to go back and try again by either getting another court order or resubmitting what they have to Google again – but then it could become a game of whack-a-mole and for what? The information is STILL available anyway.

I completely understand wanting to find a solution for relief for those that have genuinely been harmed online but I think there needs to be a shift from trying to bury and cover things up to providing A LOT more education regarding these issues (why people should be leery of what they read online, ways to not get themselves into these problems in the first place, constructive ways of handling issues) and perhaps, as I said recently, come up with harsher punishment for internet defamers.

Until next time friends…

All information contained in this blog (www.beebelawpllc.blog.com) is meant to be for general informational purposes only and should not be misconstrued as legal advice or relied upon.  All legal questions should be directed to a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction.

 

Your Kids Cyber-bullying? Eventually You Could be Held Responsible.

In my blog series Fighting Fair on the Internet I have been writing in general about the varying problems I see with use of the internet.  After all, given my unique position and area of law I work in, I have had the opportunity to see all kinds of situations that most people never even think about.  Seriously – the good, bad, and the ugly – I see all of it.  And why do I write about it?  Because everyday I see people making stupid mistakes that eventually end up coming back to haunt them in one way or another and because I think education on these issues, raising awareness, plays a key part in reducing the amount of problems I see.

A colleague of mine showed me an NBC Miami article where Central Florida attorney Mark O’Mara was considering writing law that would give law enforcement officials the ability hold parents accountable for the bad things their kids were doing online.  In response to an arrest back in 2013 of two girls in a Florida bullying and suicide investigation, attorney O’Mara wrote on his blog:

The question is this: is their ignorance and apathy about their daughter’s cyber-bullying criminal? Under our current laws, it looks like the answer is “no.” Should that sort of willful blindness or gross negligence be criminal? I think it should, and here’s why: if a child kills someone while operating a parent’s car, the parents can be held responsible. If a child kills someone while using a parent’s gun, the parent can be held responsible. If a child breaks the law using a computer or cellphone provided by the parent, how is that different?

If you ask me, I am already all for harsher punishment for internet defamers and harassers so his argument makes sense.  That is, of course, so long as the punishment is reasonable but yet has enough teeth to ensure that parents actually monitor and pay some level of attention to what their kids are doing online.  If you are a parent, you SHOULD be monitoring what your kids are doing – not just to keep yourself out of trouble but to protect your child from all the dangers online (physical, mental, and legal).

After my first presentation to high school students regarding internet use and the repercussions from the same, it was abundantly clear that a lot more education was needed.  I went as far as explaining to the students that after my presentation they probably knew more than their parents did – after all, most of us old enough to have teenagers really didn’t have internet growing up and we especially didn’t have social media.  I encouraged students to go home and talk with their parents about what they learned…because not all advice that kids get from their parents is the best – especially when it comes to online issues.

As some food for thought, according to the Cyberbullying Research Institute, 48 states, plus Washington, DC, have laws that include cyber-bullying or online harassment.  Out of those states, 44 of them have criminal sanctions for cyber-bullying or electronic harassment.  Some information regarding the different state laws on these issues can be found here.  Similarly, just remember that “anonymous” doesn’t really mean “anonymous.”  In most cases, your identifying information is only one or two well written subpoenas away.

Long story short, with the continuing increase of use of the internet, don’t be surprised when laws start being enacted to hold parents liable for the wrongs of their children.  Want to be proactive and learn more for yourself, your kids, or even for a group?  Contact me!  See my contact page for more information.

Have thoughts on this to share?  Share them in the comments below!

 

 

Fighting Fair on the Internet – Part 9 |Troubles with Defamatory Online Reviews and Content Scrapers

Content scrapers are problematic for authors, defamation plaintiffs and website operators alike.

There is no doubt that there is typically a clash of interests between authors, defamation plaintiffs and the operators of websites who host public third-party content.  Authors either want the information to stay or be removed; defamation plaintiffs want information removed from the website(s); and website operators, such as many of the online review websites, fight for the freedom of speech and transparency – often arguing, among many other things, that the information is in a public court record anyway so removal is moot.  These kinds of arguments, often surrounding the application of federal law know as the Communications Decency Act, or Section 230 (which arguable provides that websites don’t have to remove content even if it is false and defamatory) are playing out in courts right now.  One example is the case of Hassell v. Bird which is up on appeal before the California Supreme Court relating to a posting on Yelp.  However, in spite of these clashes of interests, there does seem to be a trend emerging where the author, the plaintiffs, and the websites, are actually standing in the same boat facing the the same troublemaker.

Providing some background and context…

COPYRIGHT AND POSTING AN ONLINE REVIEW:  Many people are familiar with the term “copyright” and have a basic understanding that a copyright is a legal right that is created by the law that gives the creator of an original work limited exclusive rights for its use and distribution.  Wikipedia has some decent general information if you are interested in learning more.  For example, a guy who I will call John for the purpose of this story, can get on a computer and draft up a complaint about Jane and her company XYZ  before he posts it online on a review website.  As it sits on John’s computer as written, John would own the copyright to that information.  When John decides to post it online to a review website, depending on the website’s terms of service John may have assigned his copyright rights to the website in which he was posting on.  So either John or the website may own the copyright to that content.  That point is important for a few reasons, and there are arguments for and against such an assignment, but those issues are for another article some other time.

DEFAMATORY POSTING IS PUBLISHED ONLINE:  Continuing with the story, let’s say that John makes a bad call in judgment (because he hasn’t sat through one of my seminars relating to internet use and repercussions from the same, or hasn’t read my article on not being THAT guy, and doesn’t realize how bad doing this really is) and decides to post his false and defamatory posting about Jane and XYZ to an online review website.  It’s totally NOT COOL that he did that but let’s say that he did.  Now that posting is online, being indexed by search engines like Google, and anyone searching for Jane or XYZ might be seeing John’s posting.

WHAT TO DO WITH THE DEFAMATORY POSTINGS:  The internet tends to work at lightening speed and John’s post is sure to be caught on to by Jane or by someone who knows Jane or her company XYZ.  As an aside, I always recommend that people and businesses periodically, like once a month, run searches about themselves or businesses just to see what pops up.  It’s just a good habit to get into because if there is a problem you will want to address it right away – especially you think it is false and defamatory and want to take legal action because there are pretty strict statue of limitations on those – in many states only providing one year from the date of publication.  When Jane learns of the posting, maybe she knows who John is by what was said in the posting – and maybe she isn’t sure who posted it – but either way chances are she is likely going to seek legal help to learn more about her options.  Many people in Jane’s position will want to threaten to sue the website…but it’s actually not that simple.  Why?  Because unless the website actually contributed to writing the stuff, which they most likely didn’t, then they can’t be held liable for that content.  That’s the law here in the United States – the Communications Decency Act.  Fortunately, while online defamation is a niche area of law, there are many attorneys who are well versed in online defamation around the country that are able to assist people who find themselves in this kind of a situation.

So by now you are probably wondering how in the world a defamed party and a website could both be standing in the same boat.  I promise I am getting there but I felt the need to walk through this story for the benefit of those who don’t work in this field and have little to no clue what I am even talking about.  Baby steps…I’m getting there.

A FIGHT FOR REMOVAL:  As I pointed out in the beginning, arguably under the law, websites don’t have to remove the content even if it is found by a court or otherwise to be false and defamatory and that leaves plaintiffs in an awkward position.  They want the information taken down from the internet because it’s alleged to be harmful.  What can be done all depends on the website the content is on.

REPUTATION MANAGEMENT:  Many people think that reputation management is the way to go.  However, while reputation management can be helpful in some instances, and I’m not trying to knock those legitimate companies out there that can definitely help a company with increasing their advertising and image online, many find it only to be a temporary band-aid when trying to cover up negativity.  Similarly, in some cases, some reputation management companies may employ questionable tactics such as bogus DMCAs or fake Court Orders.  Yes, those situations are real – I actually just presented on that topic to a group of internet lawyers less than two months ago and I caution anyone who is using or considering a reputation management company that guarantees removal of content from the internet.

A WEBSITE’S INTERNAL POLICING:  The same law that protects websites from liability for third-party content is the same law that encourages self policing by providing for editorial discretion on what to post and not post.  As such, some websites have taken their own proactive approach  and created their own internal policing system where, depending on the circumstances and what was written, the website might find that the posting violated their terms of service and, within their discretion, take some sort of action to help a victim out.  Not every website has this but it’s certainly worth checking into.

COURT ORDERS:  Remember, a website, arguably per the law, doesn’t necessarily have to take a posting down regardless of what the court order says.  Shocking, but this has been found to be true in many cases around the country.  So what do websites do?  Here are a few scenarios on how websites might consider a court order:

  • Some websites will, without question, accept a court order regardless of jurisdiction and remove content – even if it is by default which can mean that the defendant didn’t appear and defend the case.  It’s worth while to note that some people won’t appear and defend because: 1) they never got notice of the lawsuit in the first place; 2) they didn’t have the knowledge to fight the case themselves; and 3) they didn’t have the resources to hire an attorney to fight the case – let’s face it – good lawyers are expensive!  Even cheap lawyers are still expensive.
  • Some websites will remove a posting only if there is some sort of evidence that supported the court order – like the defendant appeared and agreed to remove or even if there is a simple affidavit by the author who agrees that the information is false and is willing to remove it.
  • Some websites will only redact the specific content that has been found to be false and defamatory by the court based on evidence.  This means that whatever opinions or other speech that would be protected under the law, such as the truth, would remain posted on the website.
  • And still, other websites won’t event bother with a court order because they are out of the country and/or just don’t give a crap.  These types of websites are rumored to try and get people to pay money in order for something to be taken down.

COURT ORDER WHACK-A-MOLE WITH SEARCH ENGINES LIKE GOOGLE:  One of the biggest trends is to get a court order for removal and send it in to search engines like Google for de-indexing.  What de-indexing does is it removes the specific URL in question from the search engine’s index in that particular country.  I make this jurisdictional statement because countries in the European Union have a “Right to be Forgotten” law and search engines like Google are required to remove content from searches stemming from Europe but, that is not the law in the US.  The laws are different in other countries and arguably, Google doesn’t have to remove anything from their searches in the US.  Going back to our story with John, Jane and company XYZ, if Jane manages to litigate the matter and get a court order for the removal of the URL to the posting from search engine index, then, in theory, Jane’s name or company wouldn’t be associated with the posting.

Now this all sounds GREAT, and it seems to be one of the better solutions employed by many attorneys on behalf of their clients, BUT there are even a few problems with this method and it becomes a game of legal whack-a-mole:

  1. A website could change the URL which would toss it back into the search engine’s index and make it searchable again.  The party would either have to get a new court order or, at least, submit the court order again to the search engine with the new court order.
  2. If sending the Court Order to Google, Google will typically post a notice to their search results that a search result was removed pursuant to a court order and give a link to the Lumen Database where people can see specifically what URLs were removed from their index and any supporting documentation.  This typically includes the court order which may, or may not, include information relating to the offending content, etc.  Anyone can then seek out the court case information and, in many cases, even pull the subject Complaint from online and learn exactly what the subject report said and learn whether or not the case was heard on the merits or if the case was entered by default or some other court related process.  Arguably, the information really isn’t gone fore those who are willing to do their homework.
  3. The first amendment and many state privilege laws allow the press, bloggers, etc. to make a story out of a particular situation so long as they quote exactly from a court record.  No doubt a court record relating to defamation will contain the exact defamatory statements that were posted on the internet.  So, for example, any blogger or journalist living in a jurisdiction that recognizes the privilege law, without condition on defamation, could write a story about the situation, post the exact content verbatim out of the court record as part of their story, and publish that story online, inclusive of the defamatory content, without liability.

The up-hill battle made WORSE by content scrapers.

With all that I have said above, which is really just a 10,000 foot view of the underlying jungle, poor Jane in my example has one heck of an up-hill battle regarding the defamatory content.  Further, in my example, John only posted on one review website.   Now enter the content scrapers who REALLY muck up the system causing headache for authors, for defamation plaintiffs, and for website providers like review websites.

CONTENT SCRAPERS:  When I say “content scrapers,” for the purpose of this blog article, I am referring to all of these new “review websites” that are popping up all over who, to get their start, appear to be systematically scraping (stealing) the content of other review websites that have been around for a long time and putting it on their own websites.  Why would anyone do this you ask?  Well, I don’t know exactly but I could surmise that it: 1) content helps their rankings online which helps generate traffic to their websites; 2) traffic to a website helps bring in advertising dollars to the ads that are running on their websites; and 3) if they are out of country (which many appear to be outside of the United States) they don’t really give a crap and can solicit money for people who write and ask for content to be taken down.  I sometimes refer to these websites as copycat websites.

CONTENT SCRAPERS CAUSE HEADACHES FOR AUTHORS:  Many people have their favorite review website that they turn to to seek out information on – be it Yelp for reviews on a new restaurant they want to try, TripAdvisor for people’s experience with a particular hotel or resort, or any other online review websites…it’s a brand loyalty if you will.  An author has the right to choose which website they are willing to post their content on and, arguably, that decision could be based in part on the particular website’s Terms of Service as it would relate to their content.  For example, some websites will allow you to edit and/or remove content that you post while other websites will not allow you to remove or edit content once it is posted.  I’d like to think that many people look  to see how much flexibility is provided with respect to their content before they chose which forum to post it on.

When a copycat website scrapes/steals content from another review website they are taking away the author’s right to choose where their content is placed.  Along the same lines, the copycat websites may not provide an author with the same level of control over their content.  Going back to my John, Jane and XYZ example, if John posted his complaint about Jane on a website that allowed him to remove it at his discretion, it’s entirely possible that a pre-litigation settlement could be reached where John voluntarily agreed to remove his posting or, John decided to do so on his own accord after he cooled down and realized he made a big mistake posting the false and defamatory posting about Jane online.  However, once a copycat website steals that content and places it on their website, John not only has to argue over whether or not he posted the content on another website but also may not be able to enter into a pre-litigation settlement or remove it at his own direction.  In fact, there is a chance that the copycat website will demand money in order to take it down – and then, who knows how long it will even stay down.  After all the copycat website doesn’t care about the law because stealing content is arguably copyright infringement.

CONTENT SCRAPERS CAUSE HEADACHE FOR DEFAMATION PLAINTIFFS:  As discussed within this article, defamation plaintiffs have an up-hill battle when it comes to pursuing defamation claims and trying to get content removed from the internet.  It almost seems like a losing battle but that appears to be the price paid for keeping the freedom of speech alive and keeping a level of transparency.  Indeed, there is value to not stifling free speech.  However, when people abuse their freedom of speech and cross the line online, such as John in my example, it makes life difficult for plaintiffs.  It’s bad enough when people like John post it on one website, but when a copycat website then steal content from other review websites, and post it to their website(s), the plaintiff now has to fight the battle on multiple grounds.  Just when a plaintiff will make headway with the original review website the stolen content will show up on another website.  And, depending on the copycat website’s own Terms of Service, there is a chance that it won’t come down at all and/or the copycat website will demand money to have the content, that they stole, taken down.  Talk about frustrating!

CONTENT SCRAPERS CAUSE HEADACHE FOR REVIEW WEBSITES:  When it comes to online review sites, it’s tough to be the middle man…and by middle man I mean the operator of the review website.  The raging a-holes of the world get pissed off when you don’t allow something “over the top” to be posted on their website and threaten to sue – arguing you are infringing on their first amendment rights.  The alleged defamation victims of the world get pissed off when you do allow something to get posted and threaten to sue because well – they claim they have been defamed and they want justice.  The website operator gets stuck in the middle having zero clue who anyone is and is somehow supposed to play judge and jury to thousands of postings a month?  Not that I’m trying to write myself out of a job but some of this stuff gets REALLY ridiculous and some counsel are as loony as their clients.  Sad but true.  And, if dealing with these kinds of issues wasn’t enough, enter the exacerbators, i.e, the copycat websites.

To begin with, website operators that have been around for a long time have earned their rankings.  They have had to spend time on marketing and interacting with users and customers in order to get where they are – especially those that have become popular online.  Like any business, a successful one takes hard work.  Copycat websites, who steal content, are just taking a shortcut to the top while stepping on everyone else.  They get the search engine ranking, they get the advertising dollars, and they didn’t have to do anything for it.  To top it off, while the algorithms change so often and I am no search engine optimization (SEO) expert, I suspect that many of the original websites may see a reduction in their own rankings because of the duplicative data online.  Reduced rankings and traffic may lead to a reduction in revenue.

I like to think that many website operators try hard to find a happy medium between freedom of speech and curtailing over the top behavior.  That’s why websites have terms of service on what kind on content is allowed and not allowed and users are expected to follow the rules.  When a website operator learns of an “over the top” posting or other situation that would warrant removal or redaction, many website operators are eager to help people.  What is frustrating is when a website feels like they are helping a person only to get word days later that the same content has popped up elsewhere online – meaning a copycat website.  In some instances people wrongly accuse the original website for being connected to the copycat website and the original website is left to defend themselves and try to convince the person their accusations are inaccurate.  There is the saying of “no good deed goes unpunished” and I think that it is true for website operators in that position.

As the new-age saying goes “The Struggle is Real!”

I don’t know what the solution is to all of these problems.  If you have kept up with this Fighting Fair on the Internet blog series that I have been working on over the past year, you know that I REALLY disapprove of people abusing the internet.  I support the freedom of speech but I also think that the freedom of speech shouldn’t give one a license to be a-hole either.  I don’t know that there is a bright line rule for what content should and should not be acceptable…but as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said in Jacobellis v. Ohio back in 1964 to describe his threshold for obscenity, “I know it when I see it.”  For me, after having seen so much through work and just in my own personal life, I think that is true.  My hope is that if I keep talking about these issues and hosting educational seminars and workshops in effort to raise awareness perhaps people may join my mission.  I firmly believe that we can ALL do better with our online actions…all we need is a little education and guidance.

Until next time friends…