Dealing With A DMCA Crook

Along with dealing with the various spammers and fraudsters who manage to find their way onto our servers, one of the issues we deal with pretty regularly is copyright infringement. People storing, distributing or downloading cracked computer games, purloined CD/DVD rips, etc. using their DreamHost accounts. These are usually pretty blatant, and our typical response is to just disable the associated accounts.

Yeah, we’re hardcore like that – kind of like Mounties.

DreamMounties!

Sometimes, though, there are ‘gray’ area cases where it’s not very clear whether or not copyright infringement is taking place – perhaps there’s a distribution license we don’t know about or it falls under Fair Use doctrine. Just because someone says that illegal copyright infringement is taking place does not make it so.

For that reason, we require what is known as a DMCA Notification. This is a legal document (submitted under penalty of perjury!) wherein the alleged copyright holder basically says “my stuff is being distributed without permission and I want it taken down!”, after which we take it down. A similar process exists for getting the content placed back online. It’s all a bit more complicated than this – and possible fodder for a future DreamHost weblog entry.

While the DMCA does offer some major benefits to both copyright holders and web hosts like DreamHost – legal immunity, woo-hoo! – it’s not always used as a force for good. Occasionally, unscrupulous types (and I’m looking at you, Church of Scientology!) will attempt to use the DMCA as a cudgel to take down sites that they don’t like, even when they are clearly in the legal right under copyright law. When that occurs – and it does from time to time – we tell them (in flowery legal language, of course) to go away and leave us alone.

Take a hike!

Liability issues aside, we’re not about to knowingly help someone silence valid criticism by going along with false or overly broad DMCA Notifications.

Which brings us to the aptly-named Michael Crook…

Baby Ruth?
Copyright © 2005, Fox News Network (not Michael Crook)

For those of you who are unaware, Michael Crook has become a bit of an Internet phenomenon – sort of like a twisted, distorted version of the Star Wars Kid. Instead of feeling pity because he once made a poor choice of getting in front of a camera, you can’t help but watch the slow motion trainwreck that ensues as he digs himself into a deeper and deeper hole.

It all started in 2005 when he was invited onto a Fox News Channel show due to his controversial “Forsake The Troops” web site. In a moment of spirited bipartisanship among the far-right and not-quite-as-far-right, the show’s hosts railed against him and his site, which was “dedicated to the notion that our nation’s military is grossly overcompensated, at the expense of the American taxpayers.” While also controversial, his holocaust denial site wasn’t featured.

You can view the segment in its entirety on Youtube.

Flash forward to September of last year: Crook decided to copy another “griefer” by posting fake ads promising sexual activity on Craig’s List, baiting men into writing and then posting those responses to his site. Popular weblog 10 Zen Monkeys found out about this and wrote an entry about it, including the (rather unfortunate, to put it mildly) screen capture from the Fox News appearance shown above. Crook responded by filing a DMCA Notification against the site’s web host, who quickly took it down.

The problem is that the copyright for the image – indeed, the whole video of the appearance – doesn’t belong to Michael Crook. It belongs to Fox News, who has stated they don’t care if it’s reposted. Somehow, Crook misinterpreted his being on the show as somehow making him a partial owner of the content.

The web and Crook’s reputation being what it is, the image spread like wildfire – eventually landing on a number of DreamHost-hosted sites. Humorous variations appeared all over the place (even in a FARK Photoshop contest), and Crook sent out fraudulent DMCA Notifications for each of them. We received several, though after the first was reinstated – and we learned the story behind Crook and the images – we stopped acquiescing to his goofy demands.

Once it became clear that we were done listening to him, Crook became quite agitated in his communication with us. He called us names, threatened legal action, filed Notification for yearbook photos he doesn’t own the rights to, filed Notifications for sites that we don’t even host, and even sent us these little gems:

While you’re duly noting, please note also that you will get a DMCA notice every day Until you comply.

You are now a party to interference with a business relationship as I have not received Royalties for these photographs, for which I paid a fee.

Also..just out of curiosity….how would your vendors and customers like an “anonymous” Tip that your company was founded and is run by child molestors?

Just wondering is all.

One other thing for your legal beagles to consider:

Those photographs were from a yearbook for which I paid. I am therefore the
copyright holder. You are fraudists, liars, and you probably all molest your children.

Umm. Yeah.

Mind you, DreamHost Abuse actually does incur a fair bit of this sort of thing. We’ve received death threats, bomb threats, you name it. Libel and defamation? Yeah, we get that sometimes too. Baseless legal threats, though, are a stupidly common occurrence (“I have a right to send spam under the First Amendment – I sue you!”). If we received a penny every time we heard this sort of bluster, we would… well… have a whole bunch of pennies. We don’t scare easy, though, so we mostly just laughed Crook’s Internet kookery off.

We couldn’t help but feel some glee, though, when Crook was sued by the Electronic Frontier Foundation for his abuse of the DMCA. Finally – a landmark case that we could point to showing the penalty for abusing the DMCA! Crook’s misuse of the law was so absuredly blatant that the EFF would almost certainly win!

Unfortunately, on Wednesday it was announced that the case was settled out of court. No legal precedent would be set. D’oh!

Almost as good, though, were the terms of the settlement. Crook would have to formally withdraw all DMCA complaints, apologize for his interference with the free speech rights of his targets, and – perhaps best of all – take a course in copyright law.

Here is Crook’s apology (nice touch with the mustache, huh?):

Of course, this is probably not all that sincere (Crook has since posted attacks against the EFF and 10 Zen Monkeys’ Jeff Diehl elsewhere), but at least it was an admission that he was – legally speaking – completely full of it.

There are a few things to learn from all this:

  • If you don’t know the first thing about law, don’t file legal documents. You’d be surprised at how many invalid and incomplete DMCA Notifications we receive, even from people who probably do have a legitimate complaint. For your own sake, heed the advice of a qualified intellectual law attorney!
  • If you don’t have a legitimate complaint, don’t make a point of harassing and annoying others. What begins as a minor deal that nobody will remember a week later can quickly become a bit of a tempest. Crook will live with his decisions for the rest of his life, and if (as he has said) he really has/had an interest in going into law he’s almost certainly ruined any chance for that.
  • While it has its virtues, the DMCA is flawed. Formal penalties – ones involving more than just video-taped apologies – need to be codified in the law for those who file malicious or false Notifications.
  • Simply appearing in a photo or on video does not give you copyright ownership over that appearance.

So, folks, for those keeping score at home: Do yourself a favor. Don’t be a Crook.