Commentary

Judge Puts Kibosh On Strategy To Squelch Reviews

Several years ago, an outfit called Medical Justice must have thought it came up with a foolproof way of stifling bad reviews.

The plan involved getting prospective patients to sign away a copyright interest in any online review. Then, if dissatisfied patients criticized a doctor on an online review forum, the doctor could threaten to sue the forum for copyright infringement, unless it took down the post.

Needless to say, the scheme to shut down criticism didn't sit well with digital rights groups. The Center for Democracy filed a complaint against Medical Justice with the Federal Trade Commission in 2011.

The group Public Citizen also took aim at the tactic by suing New York dentist Stacy Makhnevich, who allegedly tried to use Medical Justice's strategy to take down bad reviews by Robert Lee, one of her patients.

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The dentist defaulted in the matter, but the case remained on the court docket until late last week, when a federal judge issued a sweeping condemnation of the dentist's tactics.

U.S. District Court Judge Paul Crotty in Manhattan ruled that Makhnevich's copyright agreement with Lee was invalid for a host of reasons, including that it's unethical. Crotty also said that even if Makhnevich owned a copyright in the reviews, Lee would have a “fair use” right to post them on sites like Yelp.

The dispute between Makhnevich and Lee started when the dentist allegedly charged Lee more than $4,000 for a tooth filling, and then failed to turn over the records so that he could put in an insurance claim. Lee wrote about his experience on Yelp and DoctorBases -- which allegedly prompted Makhnevich and her dental practice to claim that they owned the copyright to his reviews.

Makhnevich not only demanded that the Web sites take down the posts, but also sent Lee invoices of $100 per day for the posts, according to Lee's court papers.

For its part, Medical Justice promised to change tactics back in 2011, when it said it would stop using copyright law to discourage patients from writing bad reviews.

Medical Justice quickly said that it was going to change tactics and would stop using copyright law to discourage bad reviews.

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