Phi Sigma Sigma Sorority Sues Member For Revealing Secret Handshake On Penny Arcade Forum

from the didn't-know-barbra-streisand-was-a-member dept

Every time people tell me that lawyers now have a strong enough understanding of “the Streisand Effect” such that it’s less likely to happen these days, I laugh. There’s always someone new who hasn’t figured it out yet. This story was pointed out to us by Chris O’Donnell, who said he never realized that Barbra Streisand had been a member of the Phi Sigma Sigma sorority. You see, back in November of 2011, a former member of Phi Sigma Sigma posted to a thread on the Penny Arcade forums, detailing some of the “secrets” of the sorority, including its silly secret handshake. The overall thread was started by someone asking fraternity and sorority members to reveal various secrets, such as initiation rituals. The thread was actually started in early 2010, but long after it had died out, someone under the name “stepscloser” posted the following:

Phi Sigma Sigma secrets are:

Phi Sigma Sigma (PSS) secretly stands for Philanthropic Social Society. However, this is never written down or recorded (until now) because it is so “sacred”. The Handshake consists of a series of motions. Member A first begins with the pointer finger and the thumb surrounding Member B’s pointer finger and thumb. This is the “Phi”. Then Member A wraps the remaining fingers, middle, ring and pinky around the hand as a symbol of the “Sigma”. Depending on who is the senior member, the pinky finger is wrapped around the older member’s hand. Next is the hand knock. It goes Knock. Pause. Knock. Pause. Knock, knock, knock. The meetings are set up usually with the President, VP and other officers sitting at the front. The President wears a yellow or gold robe and the officers wear royal blue robes. The remaining members sit across from the officers in a pyramid formation with the base closest to the officers and the apex farthest from the officers. Members are seated by class order, then by alphabetical order. The table at which the President and Vice President are seated consists of candles on each side. Two gold candles and one blue at each corner of the table. Members usually recite an oath, “We, the members of Phi Sigma Sigma, promise to keep secret and sacred all of our proceedings.” The way to enter the pyramid is by using the hand knock to notify the members you are wanting to enter the room. The President will respond back with her gavel by repeating the knock. The person will enter then travel to the apex of the pyramid formation. The President will say the secret and sacred words “Remove the Veil” and then the member will respond back with the Chapter’s name, example, “Zeta Eta.” The Gold and King Blue symbolize “Perpetuity” and “Sincerity”. At initiation, blue “veils” (tulle from the local fabric store) are placed on the heads of the potential new members and are later removed to symbolize some sort of occult transformation and that they are full-fledged members.

So, yeah. Never having cared much about fraternity/sorority anything, that sounds about as much like I’d expect some random silly initiation ritual/secret handshake to sound like. The kind of thing people make up to make people feel like they’re special for joining a group, while it has no real significance.

Either way, considering it was on a thread that was long since dead, chances are this would pass on into oblivion. But, no. A year later, the sorority had its lawyers contact Penny Arcade to file a very misguided DMCA notice:

I am legal counsel to the board of directors of Phi Sigma Sigma, Inc. Phi Sigma Sigma was founded on November 26, 1913, and today maintains over 100 active collegiate chapters throughout the United States and Canada. This letter constitutes notification of claims of intellectual property infringement and violation of Digital Millennium Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. Section 512 (the ?DMCA?).

Phi Sigma Sigma is the owner of certain trade secrets including, but not limited to, certain rituals conducted by members of Phi Sigma Sigma (collectively, the ?Trade Secrets?). These Trade Secrets constitute confidential and proprietary information of Phi Sigma Sigma.

We ask that you expeditiously respond to this notice by immediately removing or disabling access to this infringing material including, but not limited to, removing the entire posting and all replies. Please promptly confirm any action that you take within ten (10) business days of receipt of this letter.

Of course, trade secrets are not covered by the DMCA, and the information in the post was not covered by copyright, so already this lawyer is on shaky, shaky ground. Penny Arcade’s “Gabe” (aka Mike Krahulik) refused to comply, noting that the sorority could just change the damn handshake if it was that important. The lawyer never followed up to sue Penny Arcade, but apparently is now suing the former member in King County Superior Court, though it’s not clear the sorority has any idea who “stepscloser” actually is.

Now, attorneys representing the sorority are seeking a court order restraining the former member ? ?Jane Doe? in the lawsuit ? from disclosing confidential information about Phi Sigma Sigma. They?re also seeking financial compensation for harm they claim has been done to the sorority.

?The defendant knew that the information that she was posting had not been publicly disclosed and would damage? the sorority, attorney Karin Jones said in the civil lawsuit. ?The defendant admitted in her posting that the confidential information she disclosed is never written down or recorded and that that the organization and its members consider the information ?sacred.??

Yeah, good luck with that one. At least they gave up on the ridiculous idea that this was a copyright violation.

Either way, now this long dead thread on an old internet forum post, that no one had been paying much, if any, attention to, is suddenly getting tons of attention. You would have thought that the sorority would have realized how idiotic this was after the Gabe post from two-and-a-half years ago, but apparently the message didn’t get through.

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Comments on “Phi Sigma Sigma Sorority Sues Member For Revealing Secret Handshake On Penny Arcade Forum”

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Ninja (profile) says:

I’ll henceforth call this ‘handshake’ the Streisand Special High-five (SSH) which, combined with Phi Sigma Sigma (PSS) yields the very appropriate onomatopoeia PSSSSH for the occasion.

but apparently the message didn’t get through.

Dude, even Brazilian newspapers use the term “Streisand effect”. I’d say it’s more like “bah, it won’t happen to me” mindset than lack of awareness.

kenichi tanaka (profile) says:

The thing that bothers me is that handshakes are not protected by copyright. It’s like copyrighting the way you walk down the street or the way you cock your head to the side. Pardon me for saying this but this lawsuit is ridiculous and I hope the judge sees it as that and dismissed the lawsuit.

WTF? Handshakes protected by DMCA, copyright and trademark? Like I said: WTF. LOLS

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Re:

For someone who previously insisted that TechDirt not referencing that a law they were discussing had already been voted on was a research failure, you seem to have missed a large point about the actual lawsuit, namely that they dropped the copyright claims made to penny arcade, and never followed up on the DMCA claim against Penny Arcade, and appear to be focusing on a Trade Secrets angle. Its still ridiculous, as I doubt a handshake and an oath provide a measurable economic advantage over other sororities, but its always preferable to use factual information in your claim that something is ridiculous.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I would highly reccomend you make use of the ‘reply to this’ button to respond to people. That allows your comments to be viewed in the correct location in threaded mode, making it easier to determine what you are responding to in a big thread. Because while your comment happens to make sense in flattened mode because no one happened to post in between DannyB’s Comment and yours, it now looks strange in threaded mode, where I reply to your first comment and therefore appear between DannyB and you.

DB (profile) says:

This lawyer defines ‘ethics’ as “did the check clear?”

What happens if the person posting is not a sorority member? And is not bound by the legally-binding secrecy agreement? Have they been advised that they might be suing over a “trade secret” that has long since ceased being a secret? How many boyfriends have been told the “secret” over time? It only takes one on the stand to eviscerate their case.

Anonymous Coward says:

Are the logs still there?

The Penny Arcade forum software might still have the IP address of the poster, if it had ever recorded it with the post (instead of in a log which would have long been rotated out).

But the IP address will point to an ISP. It’s been over two years, will the ISP still have the log saying which subscriber had that specific IP address at that specific date and time?

It’s highly likely that the trail has gone cold.

Zaphod says:

discovery process

“…seeking financial compensation for harm they claim has been done to the sorority.” Wouldn’t this open the sorority up to disclosure of all its financial and other records and entry of that info into the court’s public records? Claims of financial damage at this point could cause PSS more harm than any actual “damage”. Somebody hasn’t thought through this process.

KRA says:


My father in law is fond of saying, “When people see red, lawyers see green.”

This country needs to close about half its law schools and have some kind of standards for admission that go beyond an 80% acceptance rate. Maybe the remaining lawyers will have enough work and enough pride to do real work. I don’t think the issue is that they don’t understand the Streisand effect; it’s that they don’t care.

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