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Art of Living Foundation v. Does 1-10

Topic(s): Internet Free Speech - Right To Speak Anonymously

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Art of Living, an international religious cult based on the teachings of an Indian guru, used a DMCA take down notice to secure removal of some of its teaching manuals that appeared on two anonymously-published blogs that contained extensive criticism of the cult’s practices. Two months later, the cult’s US chapter registered the copyright in one of the manuals, brought suit both for copyright infringement and for defamation, and obtained subpoenas to identify the Doe bloggers. After the defamation claim was dismissed, Art of Living filed a new lawsuit limited to the claim that publication of teaching manuals for its courses revealed trade secrets, and that publication of the teaching manual for one of its free courses infringed the copyright in that manual, even though the copyright was not even registered until months after the manual had been taken down from the web site. A magistrate judge in federal court in San Jose decided that the copyright claim was a sufficient basis for identifying the Doe, departing from the general rule, previously followed in that very court, that a plaintiff needs evidence in support of its claims and that the judge needs to balance the First Amendment rights against the plaintiff’s interest in proceeding with a valid lawsuit. The judge relied on several mass copyright infringement cases brought against Doe defendants accused of improper downloading of musical recordings.

Public Citizen prepared a friend of the court brief, joined by EFF, the ACLU, and the ACLU’s Northern California affiliate, explaining that copyright cases do not justify any exception from the general rule requiring proof of wrongdoing and balancing of rights. Alleged defamers are no less worthy of protection than those accused of using copyrighted materials in their criticism, and the downloading cases present a number of different considerations than cases like where copyrighted materials are published to show the basis for criticizing pseudo-religious movements; and even in the downloading cases the courts require actual evidence of wrongdoing before they compel disclosure of identifying information. The brief also pointed out that the fact that the bloggers live abroad poses especial concerns, given the reported history of retaliation against those who criticize the cult and the lack of First Amendment protection for bloggers outside the United States.

The trial court agreed that the fact that the claims were for copyright infringement did not require a departure from the normal balancing test for identifying anonymous speakers, because it is the nature of the speech at issue that determines the proper testy, not the cause of action alleged, and the speech in this case was about religion and matters of public concern. Althoguh the complaint stated a cause of action and there was evidence supporting a prima facie case, the Doe defendants offered to respond anonymously to written discovery, and the court applied a balancing test to allow the Does to remain anonymous through discovery pending an anticipated motion for summary judgment.

The Court eventually granted summary judgment on some but not all claims, but still without ordering the Does identified. In the end, the case was settled with dismissal of all claims and payment of attorney fees to the defendants, without either Doe being identified.