Last spring, a religious organization known as Jehovah’s Witnesses subpoenaed Reddit, invoking the DMCA copyright law.
They did this in order to learn the real-world identity of one Reddit user, aka, “Darkspliver” – who apparently at some point fell afoul of the organization’s rules.
However, on the face of it, the claim had nothing to do with religion or dissent. Instead, it alleged a violation of online copyright rules, as enforced in the US.
Nevertheless, this was seen by some as squarely aimed at abusing DMCA simply to unmask the real-world identity of a Reddit user – with Reddit refusing to hand over the info, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a leading digital rights group, did great work in stepping in to help protect the online identity of the Reddit user “Darkspliver.”
The gist of the claim was that this (former?) Jehovah’s Witness was out to abuse the US copyright law by reposting some of the organization’s content online – while those representing Darkspliver said the legal action by Jehovah’s Witnesses was an attempt to unmask an online user’s identity for purposes very different from actually fighting copyright infringement or protecting any legitimate copyright.
Filing the copyright violation claim was the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society – a group that publishes doctrines for Jehovah’s Witnesses.
And now, a federal judge in San Francisco has decided that the Reddit user’s quotations of Watch Tower’s copyrighted works had indeed been fair use – i.e., allowed under current US copyright law.
Last spring, US Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim of the Northern District of California ruled that Reddit must reveal the identity of the user, but only to attorneys involved in the case.
But now – Distinct Judge James Donato rejected this recommendation, to grant a motion to quash Watch Tower’s subpoena.
Donato said Kim’s approach of applying the First Amendment (free speech rights in the US) to anonymous online speech was “problematic.”
“It is a developing area where the standards are far from settled,” Donato said in his potentially groundbreaking ruling.
See the ruling here.