A federal court in Northern California has reaffirmed the need for holders of copyrights to clear Constitutional hurdles before they can use the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to identify a person behind an unattributed post. The decision reinforces First Amendment protection of anonymous speakers.
The case revolves around speculation about the romantic life of a private equity billionaire and a woman who appears with him in a photo.
Twitter went to court to try to prevent the unmasking of the anonymous poster behind the tweeted images at its @CallMeMoneyBags account. A magistrate ruled that Twitter should disclose the identity of the user because he or she failed to appear in court to affirm that the images were posted in the spirit of fair use. In June, Judge Vince Chhabria of the U.S. District Court of Northern California overruled the magistrate.
Merely copying an image, the judge ruled, does not violate copyright laws if it falls under the fair use doctrine. The judge found that the six tweets in this case “are best interpreted as vaguely satirical commentary criticizing the opulent lifestyle of wealthy investors generally.” The tweet, which accuses the billionaire of infidelity, suggests “that wealth (or private equity) corrupts.”
The implications of this case, however, are limited by the peculiar facts of the case.
Judge Chhabria found that the company that owns the copyright of the images and went to court to unmask the anonymous speaker is, itself, somewhat anonymous and a “mysterious entity.” He noted that the company owning the images, which claimed no association with the billionaire, was formed in the month the tweets were issued, had applied for no copyrights, and was able to present no information about its principals, staff, location, or purpose.
Beyond the disingenuous nature of the plaintiff’s claim is a cautionary outcome for anyone contemplating a similar suit. After the copyright holder complained, Twitter took down the photos. But now, thanks to the Streisand Effect, the lawsuit and accompanying news articles have blasted out the name of the billionaire, linked him publicly to purported infidelity, and shined a spotlight on @CallMeMoneyBags.
Some negative posts are like asbestos tucked away in the ceiling of an old building: The safest thing is to leave it alone.