UMG Recordings v. Escape Media Group

Internet Free Speech — Right To Speak Anonymously
Case Description: 

A defendant in a copyright infringement action pending in New York state court subpoenaed a California journalist seeking information to identify the author of two anonymous comments posted to a story on the journalist’s blog, claiming that employees of the defendant are given quotas of music to upload and, with the knowledge of their supervisors, meet those quotas by uploading copyrighted sound recordings. Opposing a motion to compel compliance with the subpoena, we represent the journalist in arguing that, because the journalist does not retain identifying information for more than a few days and because he discarded the identifying information in the ordinary course of business before the subpoena was issued, the subpoena is moot. In any event, we argue, the defendant has not met the stringent First Amendment standards for taking away the right of the commenters to speak anonymously, and that, on the unusual facts of the case the anonymous commenters are the journalist’s sources, California’s shield law also precludes enforcement of the subpoena. The trial court enforced the subpoena and then ordered the journalist to undertake complex and expensive data preservation procedures so that a forensic inspection could be completed to determine whether any of the deleted identifying information could be recovered from the journalist’s servers.

We represented the journalist on appeal.  The Court of Appeal granted a stay pending appeal on a writ of supersedeas.  We argued that there was no basis for a forensic inspection and, therefore, for data preservation absent a showing that information was improperly discarded and that a forensic inspection was likely to be fruitful. We also argued that, in any event, the First Amendment requirements for identifying the anonymous commenter had not been met.

After seeking supplemental briefing from the parties on two issues, the Court of Appeal reversed on the grounds on which it had sought briefing. First, it ruled that the discovery sought by Escape Music Group was not relevant to the issues in the New York state court lawsuit. In any event California’s constitutional right of privacy protects the right of the commenter to remain anonymous. The court therefore did not have to reach the other issues in the case, including the First Amendment and the right to delete data in the ordinary course of business without being subject to forensic examination.