An Unmasking Effort Gets Gutted Some More – Art of Living Foundation v. Does

[Post by Venkat Balasubramani]

Art of Living Foundation v. Does, 10-cv-05022-LHK (N.D. Cal.; May 1, 2012)

I posted earlier about the Art of Living Foundation’s (AOLF) efforts to unmask online critics (posting psueudonymously as ‘Skywalker’ and ‘Klim’). In early rulings, the court rebuffed AOLF’s efforts. AOLF originally brought defamation and trade secrets claims. The court held that any allegedly defamatory statements were protected opinion, and that AOLF failed to identify trade secrets with particularity. The court also stayed discovery of defendants’ identities, finding that the balance of equities favored the preservation of anonymity. (Here’s my prior blog post on the case: “Spiritual Group’s Attempt to Unmask Online Critics Goes South.”)

AOLF filed an amended complaint, dropping the defamation claims but adding claims for copyright infringement. The amendment also specified the allegedly misappropriated trade secrets. With respect to the copyright claim, AOLF alleged that republication of certain “lesson plans” by the Doe defendants constituted copyright infringement and misappropriation of trade secrets.

In a further development in this lawsuit, the court granted the Does’ request to dismiss the copyright claims. The trade secrets claims largely survive, although the court notes that they aren’t the strongest.

Copyright claims: AOLF did not present any evidence that one of the two defendants was involved in any way in republishing the lesson plans, or related notes, so this defendant (Klim) is awarded summary judgment. Skywalker, the second Doe defendant, admitted to posting the text of the lesson plans on his blog. Although he wasn’t entitled to summary judgment on the same basis as Klim, he challenged AOLF’s ownership of the copyrights at issue.

The court finds that the registration certificate presented by AOLF was not prima facie evidence of ownership (because the registration was obtained more than five years after publication). The court goes on to find that the AOLF entity that brought the copyright claim was not the owner of the copyrighted material. There’s an Indian AOLF entity, and one of the declarations let slip that the lesson plans at issue were created “for the benefit of the Art of Living Foundation in India with the understanding that the Art of Living Foundation in India would own [all of the rights to the lesson plan].”

AOLF (US) also tried to argue that the Indian entity assigned the US entity the copyright, but AOLF (US) failed to produce any written record or an assignment, or even that such a writing existed. Even a confirming email would have been plenty, but for whatever reason AOLF (US) was unable to muster evidence on this point.

Trade secrets claims: Defendants continue to batter away at AOLF’s trade secrets, but the court finds that AOLF made the minimal necessary showing that its teaching methods: (1) have independent economic value and are not generally available; and (2) are the subject of reasonable confidentiality restrictions. In particular, AOLF came forward with evidence that although the teaching methods were drawn on “conventional concepts and terminology of Hindu mysticism,” AOLF “incorporate[d] many additional and novel elements.” With respect to confidentiality, AOLF alleged that it required its teachers to sign confidentiality agreements. Although the court expresses some skepticism about the overall merits of AOLF’s trade secrets claims, those claims are sufficient to move forward at this time. However, the court does include language in its order inviting defendants to move for summary judgment on the issue of whether AOLF’s information is truly a trade secret, or indistinguishable from general knowledge of the public or those skilled in the relevant field. The court also raps AOLF on the knuckles for trying to take a third bite at the designation of trade secrets apple. AOLF already submitted an amended designation of trade secrets and sought to amend this designation again. The court says that although it will allow the amendment, this is the last time (“the court puts [AOLF] on notice that this is its final opportunity to amend its trade secret designation with particularity”).

Finally, the court grants the motion to strike as to Klim, finding that AOLF put forth no evidence that Klim was involved in any way in the alleged dissemination of AOLF trade secrets.

SLAPP fees: Finally, the court grants defendants’ request for fees as to the defamation/trade libel claim. Although AOLF amended its complaint and dropped the defamation and trade libel claims, there was no evidence that AOLF achieved its goals with respect to these claims through other means. AOLF’s amendment of its complaint to exclude the defamation and trade libel claims was “tantamount to a voluntary dismissal.” (Defendants brought a motion to dismiss and a motion to strike and the court earlier granted the motion to dismiss but declined to reach the merits of the motion to strike.) End result: defendants can seek fees for dismissal of the defamation and trade libel claims.

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This is another example of how things can go wrong when someone tries to squelch speech online. Granted, in countless other cases, these types of claims would have resulted in default judgments without anyone batting an eye, but the Does were represented by counsel (and both Public Citizen and EFF appeared as amici). As a result, the balance of power changed significantly. (It also helps to have a thoughtful judge—in this case Judge Koh—who takes a close look at the issues and seems mindful of the speech implications of the judge’s rulings.)

It’s interesting that AOLF’s efforts to unmask the Does were premised in part on AOLF’s copyright claims. These turned out to be insufficient at the end of the day. Courts routinely grant requests to unmask Doe defendants when copyright claims are involved, but this ruling is a reminder that judges should take a close look at those requests, even when the other side may not be represented by counsel. For another example, see Maximized Living v. Google.

Finally, the court’s order makes a reference to how many times the webpages containing the alleged trade secrets were viewed: 147 and 351 in July and August 2010, respectively (before the pages were removed in response to a takedown request sent to WordPress). Given the cloud around AOLF’s copyrights and the multiple entities involved (the takedown request was sent from Vyakti Vikas Kendra India), one wonders about the propriety of the takedown requests. But setting this aside, these statistics raise the question of whether AOLF’s significant expenditure of fees to squelch criticism of it was even remotely worth it. (I would be shocked if their answer today was “yes”.) Compare Pitale v. Holstine.

Given the court’s ruling on the fees issue, and its hints around the strength of AOLF’s trade secrets claims, this case should quickly head towards a settlement. The big question is whether everyone will just go their separate ways, or if AOLF will be writing a check to the Does (or their counsel).

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