Prenda Law Sues Critics For Defamation
from the grab-some-popcorn dept
Wow. Wow. Wow. Okay, so we have another story we’ve been working on concerning Brett Gibbs, a lawyer who was working for Prenda Law in California, finally answering some of the questions presented to him by a judge. We’ll get that story up later, because there’s a new Prenda story that has leapfrogged all the others. It appears that three separate lawsuits have now been filed — one from Prenda itself, one from John Steele (the guy who is often considered the man behind Prenda) and Paul Duffy the actual official partner of Prenda Law (you may remember Paul from this story, in which he sent a letter insisting that Prenda Law had nothing to do with a case, despite the lawyer appearing believing they had been hired by Prenda). Jordan Rushie, a lawyer who has been following the Prenda cases pretty closely, has links to all of the filings, which we’ve embedded below. All three were originally filed in state courts (Prenda & Duffy in Illinois, Steele in Florida), but were quickly removed to federal courts.
These are basically defamation lawsuits with a few other claims thrown in as well. There are two named defendants in the lawsuit: Alan Cooper (a caretaker for a home of John Steele, who has accused Steele/Prenda of illegally using his name as “CEO” of companies Ingenuity 13 and AF Holdings) and Paul Godfread, Cooper’s lawyer, who filed the letter alerting some judges to these concerns, and then followed it up by filing a lawsuit against Steele and Prenda on behalf of Cooper.
The other targets of the lawsuit are a bunch of unnamed John Does (and if these guys have expertise in anything, it’s filing lawsuits that involve John Does), who are… a bunch of anonymous commentators concerning the various Prenda Lawsuits. It looks like they’re targeting people on the two main copyright troll tracking websites out there, FightCopyrightTrolls.com and DieTrollDie.com. It’s worth noting that both sites were the subject of a nice profile article in Ars Technica last week.
The three filings are similar, but not identical. The Prenda one and the Duffy one are almost identical, but the Steele one is different in a few ways, including focusing on lots and lots and lots of statements specifically about Steele. Steele’s suit also does not make the “false light” claim, which means he actually realized that Florida has rejected “false light” as a tort in that state.
Still, all three suits read like obvious SLAPP suits, targeting online critics. The fact that they target Cooper and Godfread, who have a lawsuit pending against them, is ridiculous. That they then go after anonymous bloggers and commenters who have been revealing and calling attention to some of Prenda’s more questionable moves seems like an obvious SLAPP situation, in which they appear to be using the lawsuit to create chilling effects and to stifle speech. Looking over the long list of quotes they pull out in the various lawsuits, the vast majority seem to be clear statements of opinion, rather than fact. And even when you could argue some of them are statements of fact — such as referring to anyone associated with Prenda as a “criminal” or a “scammer” or calling Prenda a “fraud” or similar such things — courts have increasingly noted that name calling in online forums does not reach the level of defamation, since the context matters. That’s no guarantee, as those rulings are still limited, but it’s at least a sign that these lawsuits may be overreaching in their claims (which, of course, is a key component of a SLAPP).
It is not uncommon for people in comments on blogs to go a bit far in some of their claims (and even the main authors of the two blogs above sometimes seem to make pretty strong statements that may not be fully supported by the evidence presented). However, to take that to the level of defamation feels like a pretty big stretch. If anything, these lawsuits seem more likely to be attempts to first “out” the folks behind those blogs (and some of the nastier comments) and, barring that, to scare them with chilling effects.
Of course, one interesting thing: the best defense against defamation claims, obviously, is the truth. And, it would seem that, in filing these lawsuits, Steele, Duffy and Prenda may have opened themselves up to pretty wide discovery efforts which may turn up things they probably would rather not have in court. That point alone has me wondering why they’d take this step.
On top of that, the lawsuits note that the plaintiffs are not public figures, which sets the bar much lower for defamation. Paul Duffy might be able to get away with such a claim, but John Steele would seem to have a lot more difficulty. After all, he’s been the subject of detailed profiles in Forbes Magazine (which he happily participated in). Forbes doesn’t do profile stories on nobodies.
It would seem important to note that both Illinois and Florida have passed anti-SLAPP laws. Florida’s are fairly narrowly defined, however, and may not be useful here. Illinois, however, has as broader anti-SLAPP law that has sometimes been interpreted narrowly. Both of these are reminders for why we desperately need a federal anti-SLAPP law.
It appears that, at least for now, Steele and Duffy are representing themselves, while Prenda has another law firm representing the firm. Cooper and Godfread have signed up lawyers to represent them in both Illinois and Florida (in Illinois the lawyers, Erin Russell and Jason Sweet, both have a decently established history of fighting Prenda cases, and while I wasn’t familiar with the name, the same appears to be true of Brad Patrick, who is representing them in Florida).
As always with Prenda/Steele, every time you think a story can’t possibly get crazier, it seems to take another massive curve in the road. At some point, when this is all over, there’s going to be an amazing book to be written about the rise (and, most likely, fall) of John Steele and his adventures in copyright trolling. The story is gripping.