As many of you know, the challenges posed by the Internet and the potential for abuse by self-styled whistleblowers are two things near and dear to my heart.  A thoughtful but potentially troubling decision on November 9, 2011 by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in Art of Living Foundation v. Doe, Case No. 5:10-cv-05022-LHK, may make it more difficult for trade secret plaintiffs to litigate against anonymous bloggers who post trade secrets on a website.

The Art of Living Foundation (AOLF), a religious group based in Bangalore, India with chapters in more than 140 countries, was accused of being a cult by the Doe Defendant, a blogger who uses the pseudonym “Skywalker.” As a result, AOLF sued Skywalker last November, claiming that two of his posts misappropriated some of its trade secrets, infringed its copyrights, and defamed it.  AOLF claimed that Skywalker and other defendants published AOLF’s copyrighted Breathe Water Sound manual and trade secret teaching methods in his blog and also made numerous false and disparaging remarks about AOLF and Ravi Shankar, who apparently holds himself out as an “enlightened being” and leader of this movement.

AOLF issued various subpoenas on several Internet Service Providers to discover Skywalker’s identity, and Skywalker moved to quash those subpoenas on First Amendment grounds. The Magistrate denied the Motion to Quash, but that decision was subsequently overturned by District Court Judge Lucy H. Koh, who balanced the rights of Skywalker against the needs of AOLF to discover Skywalker’s identity.  Using a practical approach, Judge Koh ultimately concluded that discovery of the blogger’s identity was premature because motions for summary judgment and to strike AOLF’s claims were fully briefed and ripe for decision. This part of the decision makes sense, since Judge Koh had already dismissed the defamation claim on First Amendment grounds on June 15, 2011.

My Concerns About The Ruling:  I think addressing the First Amendment question on the identity of the blogger was unnecessary.  AOLF may or may not be a cult, Skywalker may or may not be a disgruntled former member, and it is hard to argue against a blogger’s First Amendment right to criticize a large religious institution on what appears to be a genuine issue of public interest. That being said, in its desire to reach the First Amendment issues, the district court ended up engaging in circular reasoning. For example, Judge Koh recognizes that the nature of the underlying speech (is the speech political, religious or literary, or is it merely commercial?) will trigger the rigor of the standard to be applied to the speech in question. 

For this reason, the district court distinguished decisions ordering the identity of defendants in copyright cases where unidentified defendants are alleged to have illegally downloaded and distributed a plaintiff’s copyrighted songs using a “peer to peer” file copying network. Judge Koh reasoned that the individual’s motivation in those cases was commercial (i.e., to obtain music for free) as opposed to trying to communicate an idea or thought. This analysis is consistent with Ninth Circuit’s 2010 decision in In re Anonymous Online Video, which ordered the identity of the speakers because the speech was commercial and directed to the commercial and business practices of the plaintiff. (For a fine analysis of that decision, see this post from the IP Law Blog).

However, how can a party adequately determine whether the speaker in question is motivated by commercial interests if he can hide behind a veil of anonymity? After all, as the Second Circuit has recently held, a Doe defendant’s arguments may raise “questions of credibility and plausibility that cannot be resolved while [a Doe Defendant] avoids suit by hiding behind a shield of anonymity.” Arista Records LLC v. Doe, 604 F.3d 110, 124 (2d Cir. 2010). By foreclosing discovery regarding the defendant’s identity, a plaintiff may be precluded from determining whether there is in fact a commercial component to the speech in question. 

The second problem that I have with the district court’s reasoning was its willingness to readily accept Skywalker’s protestations of harm.  Holding that “to the extent that Skywalker’s anonymity facilitates free speech, the disclosure of his identity is itself an irreparable injury.” (Opinion at p. 13). The problem with this reasoning is that any disclosure of a blogger’s identity is equated with irreparable injury. Mark my words, we will see this language again in some other opinion in the future. Similarly, Judge Koh acknowledged that the blogger’s claims of potential retaliation were “not particularly reliable.” (Id. at p. 14). Yet on this weak record, she found that it still outweighted AOLF’s right to discover the blogger’s identity.

This is a pet peeve of mine. When issues of the First Amendment are raised, some federal courts are too eager to race to embrace them, particularly when public interest groups like the ACLU or First Amendment Coalition fan the flames. In this case, the district court could have easily punted based on the procedural posture of this case alone, the position that it ultimately settled on in deferring discovery. Unfortunately, the district court unnecessarily engaged in an involved First Amendment analysis that may prove problematic when applied later in another case to a less worthy defendant.

Finally, should the mere fact that a motion to dismiss or summary judgment is filed be enough to prevent discovery on the issue of the identity of the blogger? Again, the cloak of anonymity may frustrate the ability to meaningfully respond to such a motion.  One would hope that, under different facts, that the balancing test used by a district court would yield a different result.

I am a big believer in transparency and, as a result, I am always skeptical of those who claim that they should be free to criticize or do anything else under the cloak of anonymity.  We all know this is especially true given the potential harm that the Internet can cause.  Courts sometimes are too willing to accept the narrative of the noble but at-risk whistleblower, when the story may turn out just as easily to be that of someone who has an axe to grind or is simply unhinged.  Yes, AOLF is hardly a sympathetic plaintiff, and yes, AOLF probably wanted the identity of the blogger for reasons other than service of process.   However, another court may now take this reasoning and apply it to a situation where the identity of the blogger is simply not worthy of First Amendment protection.

As WikiLeaks’ funding has dried up and as the federal government presses ahead in its prosecution of those behind it, the risk posed by that once-dangerous phenomenon appears to be waning.  Throw in the recent SyncSort v. Innovative Resources decision holding that mere publication on the Internet does not destroy trade secrecy, and a trade secret plaintiff should feel better about its chances of prevailing these days in these cases.  However, the unnecessary First Amendment reasoning used in this case could lead to mischief later.