Site reads Web surfers their rights

A civil liberties group and a set of law school clinics aim to tell people how their online rights stack up against corporations intent on protecting trademarks.

A technology civil liberties group and a set of law school clinics on Monday launched a Web site aimed at telling people how their online rights stack up against corporations intent on protecting trademarks.

ChillingEffects.org serves as an educational hub where Internet surfers can learn about their legal rights related to cease-and-desists letters. Such a notice, for example, could ask the recipient to remove information from a Web site or refrain from engaging in an online activity that allegedly violates any copyright or trademark.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and law school clinics at Stanford University, Harvard University, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of San Francisco said they created the Web site as part of a project called Chilling Effects, referring to the way legal threats can freeze out free expression. The coalition said the project aims to provide basic legal information about ongoing issues related to copyright, trademark and domain names, defamation, anonymous speech, and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

The DMCA has been a key target for the EFF. The group has faced a string of setbacks in its challenges to the federal law, which among other things makes it a criminal offense to crack anti-copying technology. Opponents of the law have argued unsuccessfully that the DMCA limits free speech by preventing legitimate discussions about technologies such as encryption.

Many threats of legal action under the DMCA begin with cease-and-desist letters.

Robert Talbot, professor of law and director of Internet and Intellectual Property Justice Project at the University of San Francisco School of Law, said there are "hundreds and hundreds" of such letters, including some that are "baseless threats" or tend to overstate cases.

"I have a number of people who have been clients, and they're just scared to death when these big companies come after them," Talbot said. "They think that there's absolutely nothing that they could do.

"This (Web site) balances the scales a little bit. At least they can get information and find out what is going on and maybe some steps they can take."

The organizers of ChillingEffects.org said they are placing cease-and-desist notices in a database for the site. For instance, if someone is told to remove a synopsis of a "Star Trek" episode from a Web site, the letter could be posted on ChillingEffects.org with links to information about basic copyright protections, the rules governing synopses and the fair use doctrine.

The site also will offer periodic "weather reports" assessing the types of Internet activity that are most vulnerable to legal threats, according to the coalition.

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