In Automattic, Inc. & Hotham v. Nick Steiner, the federal court for Northern California found that the defendant had willfully misrepresented that he owned the copyright in the plaintiff’s blog post and awarded the plaintiff damages in the amount of $25,084. You can read the original complaint here.
The plaintiffs, Oliver Hotham, was a student journalist and blogger while Automattic Inc is the name of the company that operates WordPress, a popular blogging platform. Hotham came across a group in the UK calling itself Straight Pride UK. As you might have guessed from the name, they are an anti-gay organization. When Hotham learned of their existence, he was interested in doing a story on them and reached out to members of the organization to set up an interview. Hotham made it clear the entire time that he was a journalist writing a story on the organization. Hotham was contacted by Nick Steiner, the Press Officer of the organization. After agreeing to the interview, Hotham sent Steiner a series of questions via email. In addition to answering the questions, Steiner sent Hotham a press release he drafted in response to Hotham’s questions. Steiner even titled the document “Press Release”. Hotham quoted from both the answers and the press release.
Straight Pride UK was clearly not pleased with the story, as Hotham made it clear he did not agree with or support their platform. In what can only be be an act of retaliation, Steiner filed a takedown notice with WordPress under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act claiming copyright infringement. In particular, Steiner claimed that Hotham had infringed Straight Pride UK’s copyright in the answers to Hotham’s emailed questions and the press release. Both Hotham and Automatic Inc spent time and money investigating and resolving the claim. As a result, they filed an action with the Northern District of California federal court claiming a violation of 17 USC 512(f)–“knowingly materially misrepresenting that material or activity is infringing.”
Unfortunately, it is not quite the win that we in the legal profession had hoped for–it was a default judgment because the defendant never showed up. As a result, there is no discussion of the merits of the case, and therefore means little in terms of setting precedence. Further, the plaintiffs might find it difficult to recover their judgment as the defendant resides in England.
But those trolling the internet and making false claims about copyright infringement should sit up and take notice. Such claims are illegal under federal law, and damages can be steep. Further, in many cases “knowingly” has been interpreted to mean “willful ignorance”–in other words, a defendant willfully ignores any information that would indicate he is not the proper owner of the copyrighted material, he does not have authority to issue a takedown notice, or has not done his due diligence in determining whether the use is copyright infringement.
At a minimum, this case has opened the door to similar claims. And perhaps those cases will give us a discussion of the merits that will be useful to future claims.