November 1st, 2006
The Electronic Frontier Foundation is representing 10 Zen Monkeys in a civil lawsuit against griefer Michael Crook for abusing the DMCA and violating our free speech rights.
In September, we published an article about Crook when he mimicked Jason Fortuny by trolling CraigsList and sex-baiting guys into giving him private information which he then revealed on his site (now offline), craigslist-perverts.org. He apparently did not like what we had to say. In a brash and hypocritical (though not at all surprising) move, Crook filed a fraudulent DMCA take-down notice with our then-ISP, knowing that the "safe harbor" provision would compel the ISP to take immediate action, even before proof of copyright ownership was examined.
I was personally given an ultimatum to remove the material cited in the notice (a TV screen capture of Crook's appearance on Fox News Channel), or have my account canceled. Needless to say, Crook did not own the rights to the image, and even if he did, there's a little thing called "fair use" in the context of critical commentary.
Appalled that he was able to so easily, and without any onus of proof, jeopardize my standing with my ISP, I immediately set about moving the site to local San Francisco ISP Laughing Squid, owned by my old pal, Scott Beale — his services are more expensive, but I knew Scott would understand and respect free speech at least to the point of asking me for details before threatening to pull the plug on my site.
The first thing I did after migrating 10 Zen Monkeys was re-insert the image of Crook into the offending article and, sure enough, within 24 hours he had sent another DMCA take-down notice to Laughing Squid's upstream provider. I'm sure he was emboldened by his success at forcing me to relocate my website once, and was trying for a repeat. But this time, Scott indeed called me to get the story. He was as angry as I was, and said I should contact the Electronic Frontier Foundation. (As an ISP, Scott hadn't seen this particular abuse before, and was concerned — it showed just how easy it is under the current DMCA provisions to intimidate a website, for any reason whatsoever.)
"This is yet another case of someone intentionally misusing copyright law to try to shut down legitimate debate on an issue of public interest," said EFF Staff Attorney Jason Schultz. "Crook certainly doesn't own the copyright to the news footage — Fox News does."
The "safe harbor" provision of the law is meant to shield service providers from liability for any copyright violations that might be committed on their clients' websites. It basically states that, upon being notified by letter or email that there is content in violation of copyright, they can avoid any legal consequences by immediately removing it. (The reason the "safe harbor" is even necessary is because of the draconian copyright "protections" built into the DMCA — ones which sacrifice fair use among other things.) But since the take-down notice doesn't require a court order, or any type of judicial scrutiny, it means that shady individuals or organizations can easily use the law to stifle free speech.
"Crook has used a bogus copyright claim as a pretext to squelch free speech," said EFF Staff Attorney Corynne McSherry. "Unfortunately, it is easy to abuse DMCA takedown provisions and most internet speakers don't have the ability to fight back."
I removed the original image in the Crook article and instead linked to a similar image residing on someone else's server (Crook is widely reviled on the internet, so it's not difficult to find materials criticizing him on Google).
Surprise! Crook didn't like that either, and on October 24th, he filed yet again, this time thinking that the DMCA could be used to intimidate an ISP for a site that links to content that doesn't reside on their servers!
Crook seems to have a particularly malicious interpretation of the DMCA. He has declared on his blog his own campaign to serve take-down notices on sites he doesn't like, regardless of whether he owns the copyright on the material in question. From his blog:
One site has gone completely down. It currently routes to a "Suspended" page. This site has remained down because the webmaster hasn't responded to the complaint. I can't be responsible for that.
None of this is surprising from someone who has devoted so much time and energy finding others in a compromised state — whether it's horny men online, or wounded soldiers — and then systematically hurting them further, for nothing more than a fleeting, self-defeating publicity.
Until now, the instances of social griefing made famous by Jason Fortuny and aped by Michael Crook have brought up mostly privacy issues. In the case of Crook's abuse of DMCA, we see the same childish, ill-intentioned publicity-seeking, but that's not to say there's no difference between Fortuny and Crook. Fortuny has never tried to stop anyone from saying anything about him — in fact, he seems to enjoy the direct negative criticisms he's received. Crook, on the other hand, is clearly operating on a level of complexity that is far beyond his capacities — he wants to be notorious, but then uses unrelated, legalistic (though illegal!) manipulations to silence those who speak out against him. Despite his comical claim to the title of copyright defender, he is creating a real chilling effect on free speech.
Some of the targets of Crook's DMCA exploits have self-censored, in part because to give him attention is a reward he doesn't deserve, but also because they don't understand their rights and cannot afford to fight. The takedown provision of this law is bad for publishers and anyone who cares about free speech, and Crook has clearly demonstrated a reason why. He has also stupidly underestimated the resolve of this publication; we hope to set an example of what can be done when First Amendment rights are fully understood, nurtured, and worn into battle.
Crook taught students how to properly use the internet
Crook serves DMCA takedown notice to BoingBoing. (BB gets permission from Fox News to post image.)
Tucker Max deconstructs Crook
EFF's press release
PDF of complaint
In the Company of Jerkoffs
The Secret Life of Jason Fortuny
Jason Fortuny Speaks
Good Griefers: Fortuny vs. Crook