If You Dislike SOPA, You’ll Dislike This Case Too–True Religion v. Xiaokang Lei

[Post by Venkat Balasubramani, with comments from Eric]

True Religion v. Xiaokang Lei (S.D.N.Y.) (TRO; Nov. 18, 2011) (Prelim. Injunction; Dec. 2, 2011). The initial complaint.

We recently blogged about a case where Chanel obtained surprisingly broad remedies against domain names associated with foreign “rogue” websites which allegedly sold counterfeit Chanel items. Much of the relief Chanel sought and obtained in that case overlapped with relief that the proposed SOPA law would provide to rightsowners.

True Religion, a company which manufactures jeans, brought a similar enforcement action against foreign “rogue” websites in the Southern District of New York. It first obtained a temporary restraining order, which the court converted into a preliminary injunction. The relief obtained by True Religion is similarly broad as, and presents the same due process concerns raised by, the Chanel case.

True Religion filed a lawsuit in the Southern District of New York. As in the Chanel case, it went after numerous domain names in a single lawsuit, and it presented declarations from its investigators that they bought counterfeit goods from those domain names. True Religion also presented evidence that defendants undertook efforts to conceal their true identities (primarily by supplying ‘purposely-deceptive contact information’ to registrars), and that if defendants were provided notice, they would “likely destroy, move, hide or otherwise make [the domain names, products in question, accounts, and records] inaccessible to the Court.” True Religion filed its lawsuit on November 15, and the court issued an ex parte TRO three days later. The TRO broadly enjoined the conducts of defendants and third parties, authorized service via email, and set a hearing for November 30, 2011. Defendants were required to show cause on or before the hearing date as to why the court should not issue a preliminary injunction. True Religion filed two sealed declarations and an unsealed declaration. No defendant appeared or filed any pleadings. On December 2, 2011, the court issued the preliminary injunction.

The TRO: The TRO finds that True Religion established a likelihood of succeeding on the merits of its claims that defendants sold products which infringed on True Religion’s trademarks and copyrights and that defendants’ conduct will cause irreparable injury to True Religion. The TRO also finds that defendants undertook efforts to conceal their identity and that if “True Religion were to proceed on notice to defendants,” defendants would shift their operations. Pending the court’s ruling on True Religion’s request for an injunction, the court issues the TRO, which contains the following provisions:

- defendants and any third parties acting in concert with them, including ISPs, registrars or third party selling platforms are restrained from selling allegedly infringing items;

- True Religion is entitled to broad financial discovery and discovery from various service providers (MasterCard, Visa, PayPal, back-end service providers, web designers, third-party selling platforms, registrars, registries, ad-word providers, etc.);

- third party payment processors and financial institutions are ordered to freeze any of defendants’ funds;

- domain name registries (VeriSign, Neustar, Public Interest Registry) and registrars are orderd to “temporarily disable” the domain names referenced in the TRO, “through a registry hold or otherwise”;

- third party service providers are ordered to cease providing service to defendants.

The Preliminary Injunction:

The order largely tracks the TRO, but adds a approximately 24 new domain names. As with the TRO, the preliminary injunction broadly enjoins defendants from exploiting True Religion’s copyrights and trademarks. In addition, it contains the following provisions:

- third party service providers who are provided notice are enjoined from providing services to defendants in conjunction with any of the acts which defendants are enjoined from doing;

- a broad asset freeze, directed at banks, payment processors, PayPal and other payment services providers;

- continuing right to conduct discovery for True Religion;

- domain name registries and registrars are directed to continue disabling and lock the domain names, including the new domain names;

- third party service providers, including ISPs, back-end service providers, affiliate program providers, web designers, sponsored search engine or ad-word providers are ordered to “disable service” to the defendant websites; and

- an authorization to serve process via “registered electronic mail” pursuant to rule 4.

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This is a slightly different flavor from the Chanel orders, but it raises similar due process concerns. The initial order (the TRO) is issued on an ex parte basis without notice, and it contains extraordinary relief–it’s essentially a kill switch for the websites in question. There are a variety of reasons why this has the potential to run roughshod over the rights of defendants or third parties; among other things, there could be some mistake as to the underlying domain name or website. There’s no assurance that the site as a whole (as opposed to one or two products) is infringing. Also, after bona fide adversarial proceedings, True Religion’s copyrights or trademarks may not turn out to be as enforceable as they seem at first blush. But on the strength of True Religion’s unchallenged assertions, the court orders various third parties, including registrars, registries, payment processors, ad-word providers and others, to cut off the defendants. (The court did require True Religion to post a bond of $10,000–a laughably nominal amount.)

Regardless of whether the court has the authority to issue an injunction binding third parties who are not before the court, and who may not even be subject to the court’s jurisdiction, many service providers will just follow the court order anyway. They may have no interest in expending resources to fight for a third party’s due process rights. Indeed, in its declaration filed after the TRO was issued, True Religion indicated that the registries (VeriSign, Affilias, Public Interest Registry, Nominet UK) disabled many of the domain names in question upon receiving notice of the court order. PayPal also froze the funds in 84 different PayPal accounts.

It’s unclear how much business defendants conducted in the United States. If their business activities in the US were nominal, this looks like an extraterritorial enforcement by a US rightsowner in a US court. It’s tough to tell, given that the process hasn’t been adversarial or even designed to facilitate bona fide participation by the defendants.

I know there are some tweaks in pending SOPA/PIPA legislation that surely would be even more helpful to plaintiffs, but courts today seem willing to grant broad remedies to rightsholders without any legislative change at all. It seems that today, rightsowners are able to go to court and, quickly and at low cost, take down domain names and get an order directing third parties, including service providers, ad networks, and payment processors, not to provide services to various websites. That’s a pretty good deal if you are a rightsholder. They may even prefer that to the ITC proceedings proposed in OPEN.

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Eric’s Comments

This case raises so many unanswered questions for me:

1) Just how many rightsowner vs foreign rogue website lawsuits are already in the court system? Are the Chanel and True Religion cases unique, or are dozens or hundreds of similar cases percolating through the system?

2) Did so much of this case really need to be done under the cloak of secrecy, and even if the answer is yes, why is so much of the case history still sealed?

3) Just how far can rightsowners go in suing dozens or hundreds of unrelated defendants in a single lawsuit? We’ve seen some pushback against copyright trolls. Are trademark owners similarly overreaching?

4) Just how far can rightsowners go in forcing third party service providers, like domain name registrars, ad networks, payment service providers and others, to honor rulings where the service providers aren’t litigants? We dealt with this issue a bit in the 47 USC 230 context in the Blockowicz case. In that case, the Seventh Circuit set some important limits on the reach of Rule 65. Without an adversarial process, were the Chanel and True Religion courts perhaps a little lax in their reading of Rule 65?

5) If rightsowners can already get in court so much of the remedies that SOPA would provide, then why are they pushing so hard for SOPA?

6) Then again, if rightsowners can already get SOPA-like remedies in court, why are we fighting so hard against SOPA? This reminds me a little of the public outcry against UCITA a decade ago–much of the angst was about the parts where UCITA merely restated then-current contract law. Similarly, perhaps SOPA is more of a mirror on present reality than a bona fide change in the law. At minimum, it suggests SOPA may be distracting us from other real problems. If we object to the remedies in SOPA, not only do we need to kill SOPA, but we need to proactively seek new statutes that prevent the outcomes Chanel and True Religion are getting in court.

I plan to continue my personal efforts against SOPA, but it’s clear that killing SOPA isn’t enough to end the fight. Perhaps OPEN would help by giving rightsowners an easier path to attacking illegitimate foreign websites and thereby alleviate the pressure that rightsowners are putting on doctrines not specifically designed to deal with that problem. That would be a good reason to support OPEN, but it’s now 100% clear to me that OPEN also needs more immunities, safe harbors and other limitations on rightsowner powers. If rightsowners get a shiny new enforcement toy via OPEN, they should have to give up some of their overreaching elsewhere.