by Greg Beck
DirectBuy is a company that claims to offer a deal on furniture and home supplies by letting consumers buy directly from the manufacturer. Apparently, the company doesn't want you to hear from customers who don't think the deal is such a good one. The company's law firm, Dozier Internet Law (which specializes, among other things, in using copyright law to "get websites pulled down without notice") sent a strongly worded demand letter to the owner of InfomercialScams.com, claiming that consumer complaints on the website are defamatory because they refer to the company's direct-buy plan as a "scam" and a "nightmare."
Of course, words like "scam" and "nightmare" are subjective statements of opinion. If consumers think a product is a scam, who can prove them wrong? Because the statements identified by DirectBuy are pure opinion, they are protected by the First Amendment and can't give rise to liability for defamation. Even if the complaints were not opinion, however, the Communications Decency Act would protect the website from liability for its users' posts. The demand letter is therefore completely without merit.
Nevertheless, DirectBuy's lawyer, Donald Morris, relies on an extraordinarily broad reading of the Ninth Circuit's decision in Fair Housing Council v. Roommates.com to claim that InfomercialRatings.com is liable for "encourag[ing] and solicit[ing] defamatory statements." Even worse, Morris threatens to file suit in Canada, because DirectBuy does business there in addition to the United States. And, to top it off, he claims that his threat letter is copyrighted, and that to post it online would give rise to copyright liability.
Companies trying to quash complaints by consumers on the Internet often send bullying letters like this, demanding that criticism be taken offline. These threats are often effective against small website operators who can't afford the cost of a legal battle, especially one filed in a distant forum or another country. Before the Web, there was little disincentive to sending such a letter. Now, however, companies realize that their demand letters may end up online, resulting in further embarrassment for them (a phenomenon for which Mike Masnick coined the term "Streisand Effect"). Copyright claims like the one in this letter are becoming a common method to counter that problem by scaring recipients into keeping quiet. It has so far been a successful strategy -- DirectBuy's lawyer claims that none of his similar demand letters, until now, have ever been posted online.
Public Citizen decided to post the letter on its website because it is only possible to understand our letter in response by seeing the letter we are responding to, and because we think Morris's letter is a good example of the many meritless threats that companies hurl at their online critics in an effort to silence dissent. We also don't think the copyright laws prevent us from posting the letter. First, the letter is not registered with the copyright office, and until it is, DirectBuy's law firm can't sue to enforce it. Second, posting the letter is a clear example of fair use. Companies should not be able to make threats and then hide from criticism behind the Copyright Act.
Paul Levy wrote Public Citizen's response, titled "How not to write a cease and desist letter."