Nightmare on the Net

A web of intrigue surrounds the high-stakes legal brawl between FACTnet and the Church of Scientology.

The next day, he crashed another Scientology gathering at the National Press Club and introduced himself as a fellow whose home had been raided by church officials, "some of whom are in this room right now." He proceeded to read the following passage from Judge Leonie Brinkema's ruling in his copyright-infringement case:

"Scientologists believe that most human problems can be traced to lingering spirits of an extraterrestrial people massacred by their ruler, Xenu, over 75 million years ago. These spirits attach themselves by 'clusters' to individuals in the contemporary world, causing spiritual harm and negatively influencing the lives of their hosts."

For Lerma, the recitation was one more shot in the chops to the belief system he'd followed for ten years and had come to despise. The quote reflected Judge Brinkema's summary, in her own words, of the church's sacred cosmology--the same secret writings that were at issue in the case.

In the summer of 1995, Lerma, recently appointed to FACTNet's board of directors, posted more than sixty pages of Hubbard's Advanced Technology documents on the Internet. How Lerma came into possession of the materials is still a matter of dispute; the story of Xenu and his galactic massacre had surfaced before, most notably two years earlier, in the case of Steven Fishman, an ex-Scientologist who was being sued by the church for libel. That case has since been dropped, but not before Fishman managed to enter into the court record more than one hundred pages of exhibits, including AT materials he claimed to have purchased from another Scientologist. Church officials maintain that the documents were stolen and that they couldn't have been copied from the court because loyal followers were dispatched to check out the file every day until a judge finally sealed the documents, days after Lerma's posting.

Lerma maintains that he should have the right to post such documents. In his online manifesto, "The Liberty Tree," he likens his postings of official court records concerning Scientology to the actions of Revolutionary War agitators. "What's the difference," he asks, "between me taking a copy of something, putting a nail in it, and hanging it on a tree in the town square, or having a virtual community see the same document, using the computer as a means of viewing it?"

But attorneys for Scientology's Religious Technology Center (RTC) viewed the postings as a blatant copyright infringement--and a violation of the church's "trade secrets," which Hubbard's followers pay dearly to learn. They filed suit against Lerma. When Wollersheim and Penny of FACTNet issued a press release affirming their support of Lerma's actions and urging "volunteers" to "immediately begin putting up 100-1000 times more Fishman affidavit type public records on Scientology into worldwide distribution on the Internet," RTC sued FACTNet as well; attorneys would later claim to have found hundreds of additional copyright infringements on the computers seized in the raids. And when the Washington Post reported on the controversy, quoting briefly from the Fishman papers, they sued the Post, too.

Judge Brinkema quickly dismissed the action against the Post, ruling that the newspaper's use of the materials constituted fair use and that RTC was liable for the paper's legal fees. She then threw out the trade-secret claims, ruling that Lerma's actions didn't constitute trade-secret violations (U.S. District Judge John Kane has ventured a similar opinion in the case against Wollersheim and Penny, writing that the Advanced Technology writings "have come into the public domain by numerous means" and probably don't qualify as trade secrets under Colorado law). But Brinkema also found that Lerma's postings, unlike the Post account, consisted of "verbatim copying wholly devoid of criticism or other commentary" and thus could not be justified as fair use.

Last January Lerma was fined $2,500 for five violations of the Copyright Act. RTC had sought an additional $500,000 in legal fees, but Judge Brinkema denied the request.

RTC attorney Kobrin notes that the judge rejected Lerma's argument that the Internet should be treated differently from other media in copyright cases. "I don't think there is any doubt from Judge Brinkema's findings as to who won," she says. "RTC's goal was to vindicate its rights; this it did."

But Lerma, too, regards the outcome as a kind of vindication, since Brinkema declined to grant Hubbard's writings the status of trade secrets and thwarted "the church's attempt to crush me financially" by refusing to award legal fees. "I'm incredibly grateful that things turned out as well as they did," Lerma says. At the same time, he takes issue with Brinkema's ruling on fair use, noting that he'd scanned and posted dozens of other court documents before he sent the Fishman papers hurtling across the ether.

"In the context of all my posting activities, it's unequivocally fair use," he insists, "but the judge chose to interpret it as one posting devoid of comment. I was trying to protect the integrity of the document by not commenting. That intent is lost in this interpretation of a copyright law written for newspapers."

Church officials take the position that there can be no "fair use" of their secret scriptures by outsiders. RTC's attorneys were so incensed at even Judge Brinkema's passing reference to Xenu, which they claimed was a mischaracterization of Scientology beliefs, that they appealed to another judge to seal her ruling. (Brinkema promptly unsealed it.)

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