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)

Advertisements

Copyright Infringement: The Basics of a DMCA Notice for Online Content

I’ve been receiving calls from people alleging that someone is infringing on a their copyright (almost always online) and asking for information relating to what goes inside a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”) Notice so that they can try to get the alleged infringing content removed. While there is a full legal analysis that should go into whether or not submitting a DMCA notice would be proper, if you know that you are in the right, the following are the basics that need to go into a DMCA Notice:

Any DMCA removal request directed to a website should comply with 17 U.S.C. § 512(c)(3) and include at least the following things:

  1. Your name, address, telephone number, and e-mail address;
  2. A description of the copyrighted work that you claim has been infringed;
  3. The exact URL or web address where the alleged infringing material is located;
  4. A statement by you that you have a good faith belief that the disputed use has not been authorized by you, your agent, or the law;
  5. Your electronic or physical signature or the electronic or physical signature of the person authorized to act on your behalf; and
  6. A statement by you made under penalty of perjury, that the information in your notice is accurate, that you are the copyright owner or authorized to act on the copyright owner’s behalf.

The decision to submit a DMCA Notice to a website should be made carefully.  DMCA Notices are NOT good for Reputation Management purposes and if you make any false statements in your demand (like you aren’t actually the copyright holder, etc.) the law does impose substantial liability for any damages and attorneys’ fees incurred as a result. 17 U.S.C. §512(f).

Do you have questions about the DMCA Notice process or other general Copyright related questions? 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.  

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.  

 

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.

 

Fighting Fair on the Internet – Part 7 | Freedom of Speech – the Double Edged Sword

If you’ve been keeping up with this Fighting Fair on the Internet blog series you know I believe that: the Internet sucks (well, it can suck); we as a society have lost the human connection and mannersopinions are like poop (we need more courtesy flushes); no one really likes the person who crosses the line onlinewords DO hurt; and that my hope is that people can dig down and make America KIND again…and that really goes for the rest of the world caught up in the three-ring circus without a ring-master that is life.  This of course begs the question: what is the root cause of the problem?  I could run a poll of 1,000 different people and I suspect I could get 1,000 different answers to that question.  So let’s look at one concept:  Freedom of Speech.

I know this is a huge topic and there is no way I could touch on all aspects but recently a situation occurred that made me look at both sides of the freedom of speech coin.  Sure, I have thought about it a lot – especially given the nature of my line of work – but this was different.  You know, the funny thing about freedom of speech is that rarely does one dislike it unless and until something is said or written negatively about them or it otherwise provokes negative emotions within.  And, I suppose it goes without saying, that what one person finds offensive will often not be the same, at least to the same degree, as the next person.  I believe that each person and their perspectives are shaped by their unique set of circumstances in life – upbringing, religion, education, and personal life experiences.  For example, one who may have been brought up in a family where there was domestic violence in the home may have a much deeper and more passionate emotion on the subject than one who didn’t have such trauma in their life growing up.  Someone could joke about it to someone that hasn’t experience it and it may come across funny.  However, the same joke to the person who has experienced it may not find it so funny.  The thing is, there really is not a “bright line” rule and therefore leaves a lot of room for disagreements.

Let’s look at freedom of speech in a social context:  Typically if something is said more generally – it’s likely to be less offensive to an individual.  Someone might say “I don’t like the president!” and while some people may disagree with that opinion they are not likely to take it personally.  That’s because  it’s not about them personally.  But what happens when criticism is directed towards a specific individual?  I don’t know a single person that likes criticism of any kind.  True, some people take criticism better than others but still, even constructive criticism, can take a toll on one’s emotional well-being depending on how the information is presented.

I don’t think Newton’s Third Law: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” applies only to motion.  Think about kids on the playground; one kid says something mean or does something mean to another kid, the first reaction, right or wrong, for the kid on the receiving end is to do something mean back – whether it be harsh words or physical violence.  The internet has, in many respects, become a giant sandbox full of bratty little children – except, most people interacting online aren’t “children.”  Someone expresses their negative opinion, or worse – maybe makes up some kind of total BS, about someone online and then what happens?  The person who got called out, out of hurt feelings and anger, will likely come up with something equally as mean, or worse, back.  It’s like a perpetual fight that never seems to end, and, worse yet, the playground fight is online, for all to see, FOREVER.  Then what sets in is the fools remorse that I talk about in my presentations and briefly in my article that speaks on the topic of crossing the line online…and many times there isn’t much that can be done about it.  You can’t un-ring a bell.

Final thoughts:  Be careful with your words in person, and especially online.  It’s okay for you exercises your free speech right to voice your opinion about things, but if you do it about someone specifically, right or wrong, you should be prepared and understand that there is a good chance that the person who you wrote about may exercise their freedom of speech, possible with “playground tactics,” to come back with the same, or even worse, reaction.  And remember, not all opinions are created equal.  Sometimes it’s okay to give an opinion a “courtesy flush.

Until next time friends.

 

 

Online Negativity: A Potential Pitfall to Your Otherwise Perfect New Business Name

For many entrepreneurs, coming up with the right business name can be hard.  After all, you want it to be catchy and tell people what your business is about.  You might want some eye catching creative logo to go with it too.  You also want to be able to link that business name and logo with the internet, i.e., domain names, social media, etc.  Equally important is making sure all of these creative things (name, logo, etc.) are unique to you and your company, otherwise you could face intellectual property challenges down the road.  No one wants to make that costly mistake!  Perhaps you even engage an attorney to help ensure that all of these things are set up right and check out just to be sure.  When all of these things are on track you might feel like you have got the green light and you are off to the races!  Or are you?

One of the pitfalls I see in business is people starting businesses with a GREAT business name only to later find out that somewhere someone else has (or had) a same or similar business name with a bunch of negative online articles or reviews about it!  As many of us are aware, stuff on the internet stays around for a long time…as in forever in some cases. Basically, even if the business has long since been done and gone, those articles and reviews may still be around…possibly at the top of search engine listings.  Even worse, people who don’t pay that close of attention, perhaps prospective customers, might think that the old business name (and crummy article or review) that had nothing to do with you are one in the same with your business!  This is true even if you have different locations, different logos, and do totally different types of business!  Yes, a few unfortunate issues with our society (generally, not all) are: 1) people don’t typically read (they skim at best); and 2) people sometimes think everything on the internet is the truth without second guessing the information or where it came from!  Yikes!  Talk about a bad combination and potential for an online reputation nightmare for your new business – especially if your prospective customer doesn’t play that close of attention to details…like the fact that you aren’t that other business with the old articles, etc!  To top it off, solutions aren’t as easy as writing the websites that are hosting the articles/reviews and asking them to take them off.  In most cases, that won’t work and, generally speaking, they don’t have to.

PRO TIP:  When doing your due diligence for your business name, in additional to all of the intellectual property considerations, you should also consider running searches on top search engines like Google to see what, if any, negative information you can find on the internet using the name of your company and names closely related to your company, e.g. Frosty Ice Cream vs. Frostys Ice Cream, etc.  Going in with your eyes wide open as to what problems are present, if any, will help you determine if you want to consider other business names OR maybe at least consider some social media campaigns or other options that will help educate and differentiate you from the other(s).

If you not sure how to go about these kinds of searches, you are encouraged to speak with a Business Attorney in your area who can assist you or perhaps a trusted Reputation Management consultant (though do your research before you hire anyone).  Anette Beebe is the managing member of Beebe Law, PLLC which is an Arizona based law firm representing clients in the state of Arizona.