We’ve all seen bullies on the Internet. Most feel like they are ten feet tall and bulletproof, hiding behind the protection of their computers. But, the truth is, what you publish on the Internet can get you in a heap of trouble.
You see it in headlines more and more often:
O.C. firm wins $1.6 million in Internet libel case
Jury awards $11.3M over defamatory Internet posts
Blogger Crystal Cox is No Journalist, Must Pay $2.5M in Damages, Says Judge
These headlines may seem a bit outrageous, but they are becoming more prevalent. Too many folks are under the assumption they can say whatever they want on chat forums, blog posts or comments, tweets, and FaceBook. The fact is libel and defamation laws are just as strong in the cyberworld as they are in the real world.
Some believe that all product reviews are protected by the 1st Amendment. While opinions are most certainly protected, there is a line drawn between where a product review ends and defamation begins.
For example, it may be considered okay to write, “I had a sick feeling in my stomach after eating at Joe’s Diner,” but not okay to say, “Joe’s Diner will make you sick.” The first statement is a personal testament of what happened to that individual, while the second contains what can be perceived as actual fact – solid ground for a defamation suit.
The same goes for calling somebody a “con artist”. Sue Scheff runs a referral service that helps parents deal with family issues. When customer Carey Bock became disgruntled with the service, she took to a chat forum to air her frustrations, calling Scheff a “con artist” and “fraud”. Scheff filed a defamation suit in Broward County Florida. Bock, who resides in Louisiana, was hailed into the Florida court and eventually ordered to pay $11.3 million in mostly punitive damages.
Scheff told reporters, “I’m sure (Bock) doesn’t have $1 million, let alone $11 million, but the message is strong and clear,” She says. “People are using the Internet to destroy people they don’t like, and you can’t do that.”
Since the landmark ruling, many bloggers and chat forum posters have been hailed into courts outside their home states to defend their actions and, in many cases, resulting in huge financial rulings against them. Even if a defendant prevails in the court proceedings, they still face the steep financial strains of having to defend a lawsuit.
Defamation of character is only one of many actions that could be brought. There is interference with business, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and, in some states, false light invasion of privacy. Defaming somebody on the Internet could even land you in the slammer. Seventeen states have criminal statutes against libel, some carry hefty fines and jail time.
I don’t know all of this from spending years in law school. Unfortunately, I know all of this, because of a personal interaction with a blogger who sees things differently than I do.
Last year, I released an eBook that breaks down the General Public License (GPL). The GPL is a license agreement attached to many software products. It is an agreement that is commonly found in WordPress themes and plugins.
The GPL goes into specific detail as to what rights the holder of the software has. It is actually quite lenient as to what you can do with products that have adopted the license. For example, you are allowed to distribute verbatim copies of the software for free or you can charge a fee. You are also allowed to make changes to the software, as long as you log the changes and the new version continues to be licensed under the GPL. For this reason, many WordPress themes are actually derivatives of other WordPress themes licensed under the GPL.
As a bonus, I included download links to 67 WordPress GPL themes in my eBook. These are the same themes that sell on other websites for upwards of $79 each. This brought out cheerleaders from both sides of the spectrum. Some were thrilled that I had broken down the GPL into an easy to understand document and included some nice bonuses, while others were upset that I would let the cat out of the bag.
I expected a debate and was ready to discuss my position, but some people chose the low road, rather than a mature discussion. Suzanne Bucciarelli is one of those people.
Shortly after the release of my eBook, Bucciarelli posted articles on her privately owned blog sites. The articles were titled, “Legally Sell or Giveaway PREMIUM WordPress Themes – Comes with Over $1000 Worth of PREMIUM Themes”, the exact title of my eBook. She then went on to place links to articles in social bookmarking sites, Twitter, and Google Plus. Bucciarelli even went as far as turning the articles into an eBook and publishing it at an eBook sharing site. A search for my book in Google and Yahoo resulted in her blog posts receiving the top positions.
Bucciarelli wrote that I am a “con artist”, “have no ethics”, I “pillaged” the themes I gave away, I lied about purchasing the themes, I am a “douchebag”, my ebook is a “ripoff scheme”, and I am a “parasite”. She even went as far as to compare me to Bernie Madoff, a man convicted of stealing a billion dollars from investors and charities. All false.
I thought long and hard on how exactly to respond to these articles. People I have long done business with were asking about the articles and they were having an adverse effect on my relationships in the community.
I needed to do something, but what could I do?
I came across an article that Bucciarelli penned in 2008 and that’s when I knew I had to take action. The article was called “Want to Catch a Buzz” and was her way of teaching how to make a blog post go viral on the Internet. Under the subheader “Be Negative and Go Viral”, Bucciarelli writes, “Content with a negative slant will get discussed more than a positive slant! Search engines are very adept when it comes to finding information, especially reviews. Many readers out there search for the negatives of a product, website or even a person or event.” She says to think of your negative campaign against somebody as “a launching pad or your 15 minutes of fame”.
After reading this, it became clear the articles written about me were following her business plan of “be negative, go viral”. I needed these damaging articles removed from the Internet, so I decided to take action and file a defamation of character lawsuit.
Shortly after filing suit, Bucciarelli edited her articles. She removed my name from the text, but continued to use the title of my ebook. She replaced my name with words like “this seller” and “this con artist”.
The contents of my eBook were an accurate breakdown of the GPL and the themes being distributed as bonuses were done so legally. Buciarelli knew this, but still chose to state that I was a pillager, a con artist, and other ridiculous accusations.
Bucciarelli answered the suit and then filed a motion for summary judgment. In an effort to skirt jurisdiction, Bucciarelli told the court her website is “non-commercial”, but anybody that pulls up her site will immediately take notice of the numerous affiliate links, banners ads for her own products, and opt-in forms that are plastered across the site. There is also a marketplace, where she sells her high end domain names. Clearly, her websites are there for commercial reasons, regardless of how much money they bring in.
She claimed that her writings are protected by the Constitution and that she is a “citizen journalist” belonging to the Society for Professional Journalism, an organization that allows anybody to join simply by paying twenty bucks.
The court overruled her attempt at summary judgment and a trial date was set.
Ms. Bucciarelli’s court documents were filled with rants about her rights as a blogger and journalist. In her latest motion to dismiss, she made it a point to call out every U.S. citizen, every court reporter, every court attorney, all the judges, and even all the bailiffs. It was actually quite comical. The judge waived that motion.
This story took a strange twist in October of last year. Bucciarelli released a product on the Warrior Forum that took advantage of the GPL. Her offer was for a “fully loaded, ready made Woo Commerce/Ecommerce site” that included bonuses of plugins and additional themes created by WooThemes. After all of her belly aching about my use of GPL licensed themes and plugins in products and as bonuses, she does the exact same thing. Some would call that hypocritical.
Trial was scheduled for today. The judge called out Bucciarelli’s name three times. She was not there, so default judgment was rendered in my favor.
A brief hearing, called a writ of inquiry, followed, where I presented my exhibits to the court and gave a timeline of events. After a half hour recess, the judge ruled that Ms. Bucciarelli was malicious in her writings and ordered her to pay me $79,141. Ten thousand dollars of that award was specifically for punitive damages, the court’s way of sending a message to others that are considering using the Internet as a weapon.
While the judgment I received may not be as flashy as those seven and eight figure headlines, it is still just as important. It sends the message that you are responsible for what you write about people and you can be held accountable.