Two years ago, we wrote about a lawsuit by Craigslist that we classified as dumb
. It was against a company called Red Trumpet who provided a service to make posting to Craigslist a bit easier. Craigslist's obvious reason for filing the lawsuit was that it was upset about the increasing amount of spam
on the site, some of which uses such tools. We understand and appreciate Craigslists' efforts to keep spam off the site, but attacking third party software and service providers on questionable theories is fraught with dangers... especially for Craigslist.
After all, this is the exact same Craigslist who keeps getting accused
of being liable for prostitution ads on its site. And for years, Craigslist has correctly responded that it is not legally responsible for the actions of their users -- a position we support and agree with. Thus, it seems strange and dangerous for Craigslist to then make the exact opposite argument
back at other service providers. It's the kind of thing that's going to come up in a court case sooner or later.
That was the biggest problem with the lawsuit, but there were three other problems with it, including what seemed like extremely questionable uses of copyright law, trademark law and the ever-popular anti-hacking law, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Here's what we wrote about all three at the time of the Red Trumpet lawsuit:
Craigslist is making a really weak DMCA claim here. It's claiming that its various anti-spam technologies (captchas, phone verification, etc.) act as "technological protection measures" that Red Trumpet is circumventing... and thus running afoul of the DMCA's anti-circumvention rules. But the circumvention has nothing to do with violating Craigslist's "copyright," though the lawsuit makes a half-hearted attempt to claim that it does.
Then, there's the trademark claims. There are a few different ones, but it argues that Red Trumpet is violating Craigslist's trademark by mentioning Craigslist on its website and in its ads. While again, you can see why this is annoying to Craigslist, if the company is accurately describing services it provides (the ability to post on Craigslist) it's difficult to see the "confusion" being caused. The ad in question doesn't appear to imply any endorsement at all by Craigslist. And, does Craigslist really want to open up a can of worms concerning trademarks being used in ads? After all, there must be a ton of posts on Craigslist that mention trademarks.
I hadn't followed the case very closely after that, but it looks like the company eventually settled
What I hadn't realized was that Craigslist had actually filed a bunch of similar, equally questionable, lawsuits against others. One of those others is a guy named Paul Hubert, who wrote some software that made it easier to manage your Craigslist postings. We've been in touch with Mr. Hubert... who did not find out that he was being sued at all, until months after the court already ruled in a default judgment against him
. Default judgments happen when someone doesn't respond, but if you're never informed of the lawsuit, it's pretty difficult to respond at all. Hubert insists that he was never served, and the first he heard of the lawsuit was a couple months after the default judgment (for over $1.2 million) when someone tried to collect it from him.
Hubert makes it clear that his software was designed for legitimate uses of Craigslist, for those who needed better management tools. In fact, he makes it clear that he left out and/or disabled certain features if he realized they might be attractive to spammers. For example, after noticing that the Craigslist Personals section was hit with a lot of spam, and realizing that such a category probably wouldn't need such a management system, he blocked the software from posting to that category. Hubert claims that in 2007 Craig Newmark himself reached out to Hubert to ask for some details about the software. Hubert says that the emails were "encouraging" and never once did Newmark suggest any concerns or problems with the software, let alone ask Hubert to stop offering it. Hubert also notes that after running into more issues with spammers trying to use his software, he shut down the whole thing at the end of 2008.
Hubert, who is unemployed, is reasonably perplexed and upset about the whole thing. He never knew about the lawsuit, was never asked to stop offering his software (which he did anyway), and is now being told he has to pay $1.2 million which he doesn't have. He claims that the lawyer trying to collect the money has told him that Craigslist wants to "make an example" of him.
I'm greatly troubled by Craigslist's actions here. Having dealt with Craig and Jim Buckmaster a few times in the past, I reached out to them about this, and asked for any comment. It's been a couple days and no response has been forthcoming from either. From the profile page of lawyer Brian Hennessy
, who appears to have represented Craigslist in both of the cases discussed here, it appears that Craigslist actually has filed a lot of other, similar cases.
I have to say that I'm pretty disappointed that Craigslist would do this. The company has usually represented a lot of the good of Silicon Valley, and to use questionable legal theories to attack various companies -- especially theories that are likely to come back to haunt Craigslist itself -- is just a bad idea. To then take it further and go after this guy who was never served and never even asked to stop -- and then pressing him for $1.2 million he doesn't have -- just feels downright shameful.