Siding with the gripe site Ripoff Report, a federal appellate court has upheld a trial judge's decision dismissing all claims made by a lawyer who alleges he was defamed in two posts on the site.
The ruling, issued this week by the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, stems from a libel lawsuit brought attorney Richard Goren against Christian DuPont, who criticized Goren on RipoffReport.com. DuPont was a defendant in an unrelated lawsuit where Goren represented the plaintiff.
DuPont defaulted in the case, following which Goren successfully asked a Massachusetts state court trial judge for the copyright to DuPont's reviews.
Goren then brought a federal lawsuit against Ripoff Report, arguing both that the site was infringing copyright and that it was defaming him.
This week, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Goren couldn't proceed against the gripe site. The court ruled that the federal Communications Decency Act immunized Ripoff Report from liability for defamation based on users' posts. That law provides that interactive platforms aren't responsible when users post libelous statements.
The Communications Decency Act doesn't protect websites from claims of alleged copyright infringement, but the 1st Circuit ruled in favor of Ripoff Report on that claim as well. The judges said that Dupont assigned Ripoff Report an irrevocable license to display the reviews. Therefore, the court ruled, Goren doesn't have the right to sue for copyright infringement even after obtaining Dupont's copyright interest in the posts.
Goren isn't the first one to try to use copyright law to remove negative reviews. Several years ago, the company Medical Justice pioneered a strategy that involved convincing patients to sign away a copyright interest in any online review. Advocacy group Public Citizen 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 one of her patients, Robert Lee.
U.S. District Court Judge Paul Crotty in Manhattan ruled in 2015 that Makhnevich's copyright agreement with Lee was invalid.
The Consumer Review Fairness Act, which took effect earlier this year, prohibits companies from attempting to silence online criticism by requiring consumers to transfer their copyright interest in reviews.
Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman, who has followed Goren's lawsuit against Ripoff Report, writes that the case "exposes an ugly interface between copyright and reputation management."
He adds that Goren's goal in acquiring the copyright was to suppress speech. "To me, this turns copyright law on its head, by making our society dumber, not smarter," he writes.