Jehovah’s Witnesses Run Away From Bogus Copyright Claims After Judge Realizes They’re Just Trying To Intimidate Critics
from the copyright-as-censorship dept
Earlier this year, we wrote about how the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, better known as the Jehovah’s Witnesses — despite a long history of litigating many, many important 1st Amendment cases — had thrown away its reputation as a staunch defender of free speech rights by massively abusing the DMCA 512(h) subpoena process to attempt to identify (and intimidate) critics of the religion.
In the last few years, Watch Tower had filed over 70 of these DMCA subpoenas, insisting that it needed to identify the alleged infringers in order to bring a copyright lawsuit. Of course, the real reason was almost certainly just to find out the names of the organization’s critics. This belief is supported by the fact that Watch Tower basically never followed up any of these subpoenas with the actual lawsuit it claimed it needed the information to bring.
Indeed, the case that we’re talking about here is the exception to the rule, and it appeared that Watch Tower only sued because a court agreed to quash the subpoena. Public Citizen Litigation Group’s Paul Levy represented the target of the lawsuit, using the pseudonym Kevin McFree, and the latest update is that the Jehovah’s Witnesses have turned tail and run right out of court, once they realized they were likely about to be in serious trouble for their abusive efforts to intimidate and silence a critic.
The full story is really quite a read. This is only a part of it but should give you plenty of reasons to want to read the whole thing.
During the hearing, Watch Tower’s counsel made the outrageous statement that Watch Tower’s litigation strategies were confined by a lack of “significant funds,” and that its approach to the litigation was guided by “significant economic motivations.” (bottom of page 18 of the transcript). Because Watch Tower’s 990T forms are publicly available as required by law, it is a matter of public knowledge that Watch Tower has more than a billion dollars in assets. Watch Tower is fortunate that it never made this representation about limited resources in a signed document.
At our suggestion, the Court asked the parties to agree on a briefing schedule for the planned motion to quash, but that proved not to be possible because Watch Tower made clear that it was going to try to pursue discovery having nothing to do with its copyright claims. Rather, Watch Tower told us that it planned to use the infringement action to pursue the question of how McFree had obtained the previously unpublished videos. The Watch Tower headquarters is a leaky sieve and it wants to identify the leakers. Beyond that, there may have been a massive hack of Watch Tower’s computer systems several years ago. Watch Tower made clear that it was planning to seek discovery on those issues as part of its opposition to the planned motion to quash. It demanded a briefing schedule that would have allowed it to postpone explaining how it could obtain McFree’s identifying information despite the res judicata defense until it had had the opportunity to pursue discovery. At the same time, it told us that it was willing to drop its lawsuit with prejudice so long as McFree was willing to agree that he would never use any of Watch Tower’s materials before Watch Tower’s own publication of those materials without Watch Tower’s consent.
Of course, under the Supreme Court’s decision in Bartnicki v. Vopper, McFree has every right to use leaked unpublished materials, even if obtained from people violating a confidentiality contract, and even unpublished materials obtained by illegal hacking, so long as McFree had no involvement in the hacking. And although the possible hack of Watch Tower’s computer might well have been actionable under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the statute of limitations on that cause of action expired years ago. So it became apparent that Watch Tower was trying to leverage a barred copyright claim, and the threat of identifying McFree, to obtain relief and or discovery on a different subject entirely – a possible abuse of process. McFree rejected this proposed settlement outright, and we warned Watch Tower that if it persisted in the litigation, we might file a document blocking it from a voluntary dismissal without prejudice, thus locking it into litigation that it was sure to lose. We urge it to drop the case immediately.
And yet, interestingly, Watch Tower was not pursuing identical copyright claims against another YouTube user, Lloyd Evans (blogging as John Cedars), who used the same unpublished videos that McFree had used (and many more). Watch Tower did not go after Evans because it knew that he was not going to take any guff. Watch Tower represented that the reason it had pursued the anonymous Kevin McFree for his use of the unpublished 2018 video instead of filing an infringement action against Lloyd Evans was that it had not known of his use of such unpublished videos. In fact, Watch Tower’s inhouse counsel submitted an affidavit averring that Watch Tower did not learn about a a particular Cedars video until September 2020, when McFree mentioned the video in his papers.
But we learned, in the course of investigating the case, that Watch Tower sent Evans a demand letter in 2018 pertaining to his use of leaked and unpublished convention videos from that year. That letter cited the URL for Evans’ You Tube channel and made clear that Watch Tower was monitoring its content. It is hard to believe Watch Tower’s assertion that it did not know until 2020 about Evans’ use of the same material on which it was pursuing McFree.
And finally, in the course of investigating the case to prepare for briefing, we obtained useful information to address Watch Tower’s false assertion that it wanted to identify alleged infringers only for the purpose of pursuing copyright claims against them. Watch Tower succeeded in using a DMCA subpoena obtaining the identity of a previously identified blogger who specialized in attacking child abuse within the group, and Watch Tower’s refusal to report abuse to local authorities. Shortly thereafter, it initiated disfellowship proceedings against him. It is quite possible that Watch Tower did not need the information it obtained under the DMCA (because this blogger’s identifying information had become available elsewhere), but even so it never sued him for copyright infringement and it never otherwise used his identity to enforce its copyright. Watch Tower had got what it wanted — revenge.
The end result of all this, however, is that Watch Tower agreed to dismiss the lawsuit with prejudice, which also allows it to avoid claims to recover attorney’s fees. And there was a very real risk of having to pay up, as copyright is one realm in which the Supreme Court has been open to making frivolous lawsuit filers have to pay up.
While it may be disappointing that this case didn’t lead to a final ruling from the judge, hopefully by admonishing the Jehovah’s Witnesses for their longstanding abuse of the DMCA subpoena process, one hopes that how this case played out has been something of a warning to the group not to continue abusing copyright law to attack and silence critics. I assume, at least, that Paul Levy will continue watching.