Scientology loses copyright round

FACTNet wins a crucial round in a legal fight against the church, raising questions about whether it has a right to keep its documents private.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
4 min read
A Colorado nonprofit group has won a critical round in a legal fight against the Church of Scientology, raising questions about whether Scientology has a legal right to keep hundreds of documents offline and out of the public eye.

The church, through its nonprofit subsidiary Bridge Publications, is suing Boulder-based FACTNet on charges that the group pirated more than 1,900 copyrighted church documents and distributing them on CD-ROMs.

But FACTNet and its cofounder, former Scientology member Lawrence Wollersheim, contend that Bridge does not have legal copyrights to all--and possibly to any--of the documents in question.

In a ruling last Wednesday, federal judge John Kane denied Scientology's request for summary judgment, saying that FACTNet successfully had cast doubt on the legal status of the documents. Kane's decision sends the case to a full trial, which will be supervised by a court "special master" appointed to untangle the thorny copyright issues involved.

"It's a huge victory," said attorney Daniel Leipold, one of several lawyers representing Wollersheim and FACTNet. "It means they will have to prove up each of these copyrights. We definitely feel confident they can't do that."

The lawsuit is one of a string of legal actions that the Church of Scientology has brought against former members and critics to keep internal documents off the Web and out of newsgroup discussions.

FACTNet is a nonprofit research and educational organization founded and staffed primarily by former Scientology members. In 1980, Wollersheim himself sued the church for damages resulting from his own experience as a member and was awarded $30 million. That sum later was reduced to $2.5 million, which Wollersheim still is fighting to collect.

The current copyright marks the fourth time a Scientology-affiliated organization has sued Wollersheim or FACTNet since his original lawsuit was filed. The court dismissed three earlier claims.

The claims date back to 1995, when the church won a court order to seize and search FACTNet computers for copyrighted materials based on comments Wollersheim had made online. After reviewing much of the material, Bridge Publications filed claims charging that FACTNet had illegally copied 1,914 church documents.

None of the disputed materials--many of which Wollersheim and his attorneys say were gathered during the course of earlier legal proceedings--has appeared on the FACTNet Web site. But the group did distribute copies of the documents by CD-ROM to several outside individuals, some of whom helped defray costs associated with producing the discs.

FACTNet says it merely was backing up its files, taking precautions against actions like the 1995 raid. Scientology says the CD-ROMs in question were sold, adding commercial gain to what the church claims already was a violation of its legal rights.

Bridge attorneys called it "the largest copyright case filed in the history of the world."

"There has never been a copyright case involving 1,900 instances of a single author's work," said Samuel Rosen, a New York attorney serving as lead counsel for Scientology's Bridge Publications.

Rosen said the judge's refusal to grant summary judgment in the case, which would have left outstanding only the question of what damages FACTNet needed to pay, marks only a minor setback.

"We are not at all unhappy with the ruling," Rosen said. FACTNet's claims that the church does not have legal copyrights are based on the testimony of two other ex-church members who were involved in Scientology's publishing arms and who have their own agendas, he added.

"We are very confident that when the defendants put [those witnesses] on the stand, we'll know whether they know what they're talking about or whether they're telling the truth," Rosen said. "It's going to be easy."

For their part, Wollersheim and his attorneys say that they can prove many of the documents involved actually are in the public domain and that Scientology may have committed copyright registration fraud by claiming copyrights for them in the first place.

But even if FACTNet does manage to have some of the 1,914 individual claims thrown out by the special master, it still will have to prove it didn't break the law by copying any of the other remaining documents to its own computers and to CD-ROMs.

Leipold said Wollersheim had the right to a legal "fair use" of the documents because he was involved in ongoing litigation with the church. "He could not survive in litigation without them," Leipold said.

He added that Scientology has used its copyright claims as means to silence online critics, another argument he thinks may sway the court in his clients' favor. "They're religious bullies," he said. "We contend that they are using the copyrights to bludgeon their critics."

But courts have looked favorably on Scientology's copyright claims in the past. Last May, for example, a judge ordered another court critic to pay $75,000 for posting internal church documents online.

"The injunction is the same whether we prove one, ten, or 1,900 infringements," Rosen said. "The number only matters when it comes to determining statutory damages."

A first hearing before special master Charles Matheson, chief judge of Colorado's federal bankruptcy court, is scheduled for Monday.