Case Dismissed: Judge Throws Out Shiva Ayyadurai's Defamation Lawsuit Against Techdirt

from the the-first-amendment-means-something dept

As you likely know, for most of the past nine months, we've been dealing with a defamation lawsuit from Shiva Ayyadurai, who claims to have invented email. This is a claim that we have disputed at great length and in great detail, showing how email existed long before Ayyadurai wrote his program. We pointed to the well documented public history of email, and how basically all of the components that Ayyadurai now claims credit for preceded his own work. We discussed how his arguments were, at best, misleading, such as arguing that the copyright on his program proved that he was the "inventor of email" -- since patents and copyrights are very different, and just because Microsoft has a copyright on "Windows" it does not mean it "invented" the concept of a windowed graphical user interface (because it did not). As I have said, a case like this is extremely draining -- especially on an emotional level -- and can create massive chilling effects on free speech.

A few hours ago, the judge ruled and we prevailed. The case has been dismissed and the judge rejected Ayyadurai's request to file an amended complaint. We are certainly pleased with the decision and his analysis, which notes over and over again that everything that we stated was clearly protected speech, and the defamation (and other claims) had no merit. This is, clearly, a big win for the First Amendment and free speech -- especially the right to call out and criticize a public figure such as Shiva Ayyadurai, who is now running for the US Senate in Massachusetts. We're further happy to see the judge affirm that CDA Section 230 protects us from being sued over comments made on the blog, which cannot be attributed to us under the law. We talk a lot about the importance of CDA 230, in part because it protects sites like our own from these kinds of lawsuits. This is just one more reason we're so concerned about the latest attempt in Congress to undermine CDA 230. While those supporting the bill may claim that it only targets sites like Backpage, such changes to CDA 230 could have a much bigger impact on smaller sites like our own.

We are disappointed, however, that the judge denied our separate motion to strike under California's anti-SLAPP law. For years, we've discussed the importance of strong anti-SLAPP laws that protect individuals and sites from going through costly legal battles. Good anti-SLAPP laws do two things: they stop lawsuits early and they make those who bring SLAPP suits -- that is, lawsuits clearly designed to silence protected speech -- pay the legal fees. The question in this case was whether or not California's anti-SLAPP law should apply to a case brought in Massachusetts. While other courts have said that the state of the speaker should determine which anti-SLAPP laws are applied (even in other states' courts), it was an issue that had not yet been ruled upon in the First Circuit where this case was heard. While we're happy with the overall dismissal and the strong language used to support our free speech rights, we're nevertheless disappointed that the judge chose not to apply California's anti-SLAPP law here.

However, that just reinforces the argument we've been making for years: we need stronger anti-SLAPP laws in many states (including Massachusetts) and, even more importantly, we need a strong federal anti-SLAPP law to protect against frivolous lawsuits designed to silence protected speech. The results of this case have only strengthened our resolve to do everything possible to continue to fight hard for protecting freedom of expression and to push for stronger anti-SLAPP laws that make free speech possible, and not burdensome and expensive.

You have not heard the last from us on the issue of the First Amendment, free speech and anti-SLAPP laws -- or how some try to use the court system to silence and bully critics. Step one of this is our new Free Speech edition, which we announced just a few weeks ago, where we are focusing more of our reporting efforts on issues related to free speech and anti-SLAPP. We intend to do a lot more as well. For years, we've talked about these issues from the position of an observer, and now we can talk about them from the perspective of someone who has gone through this process as well.

Of course, if you have to face something like this, it helps to have great lawyers--and we're immensely grateful for the incredible hard-work of Rob Bertsche, Jeff Pyle and Thomas Sutcliffe along with the rest of the team at their firm, Prince Lobel Tye LLP.

Finally, I can't even begin to thank everyone who has supported us over the past nine months -- whether by kind words (you don't know how much that helped!) or through our survival fund at ISupportJournalism.com or by becoming a Techdirt Insider. We just passed Techdirt's 20th anniversary and while it's one thing to think that people like and support you, it's another thing altogether to see how people come out to support you when it matters most. And we were overwhelmed by the support we received over the past nine months, and the kind words and help that many, many people offered. It was beyond heartening, and, once again, it reinforces our resolve to continue to speak up for free speech and to do what we can to protect others' ability to speak out as well.


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  1. identicon
    Thad, 8 Sep 2017 @ 10:45am

    Re: Re: Re: Appeals

    There's also the matter of the judge appearing to believe that "who invented email" is a matter of opinion, per the ruling.

    That's because, legally, it is; that was Techdirt's own legal argument, in fact. Here's from one of their legal filings (pardon the formatting on the copy-paste job):

    The debate over who “invented” email is inherently incapable of objective proof. With respect to email, “‘there seems to be little disagr eement over who wrote what, and approximately when.’” (Compl., Ex. F. at 4 (quoting Tom Van Vleck ).) The argument, instead, “‘is over what to call things.’” (Id.; see also Compl., Ex. E at 2 (o bserving that the origins of email are “not exactly a cut-and-dried case”).) Writers such as Ma snick argue that all of the core features of email were in place by the mid-1970s. Plaintiff and his supporters, by contrast, advocate for a narrow definition of email; they insist that to con stitute email, a program must “contain[] all the features we experience today in every email program ,” and they rely on an 87-item list of features that they say must be satisfied for a prog ram to qualify. (Compl., Ex. D at 7; V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai, Definition of Email , available at http://www.inventorofemail.com/definition_of_email.asp (see Table 2).) It is like a debate over the preci se moment when the civil rights movement began, or a quarrel about the essential at tributes of a perfect cheesecake. These are matters of “personal judgment.” See Gray, 221 F.3d at 248. Neither position can be factually proven; one’s conclusion depends on what one consid ers to be the defining attributes of the matter in question.

    The legal system has no business weighing in on the definition of "e-mail" and determining the moment it was invented; allowing judges to define computer terms is a legitimately terrible idea. The question of who invented e-mail is not one for the law to decide, it's a matter for the court of public opinion.

    What the judge decided is that we can look at Ayyadurai's arguments for why he should be considered the inventor of e-mail, and we can look at Techdirt's arguments for why he shouldn't be, and we can draw our own conclusions; that the question of whether or not Shiva truly invented e-mail is up to our personal judgement, not his legal judgement. That is the correct decision.

    The definition of "e-mail" is subjective; who invented it is therefore a matter of opinion. Techdirt's opinion, based on cited public facts, is that he is not. I agree with Techdirt, and I daresay everybody else in the comments here does too, except the trolls who still insist that Prenda didn't break any laws.

    And the more sites report on this, the more people are going to agree with Techdirt's conclusions, because they cite facts and argue persuasively. That's the marketplace of ideas working the way it's supposed to. It's also what Shiva is most afraid of, and the reason he's trying to intimidate news sites into not criticizing him.


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