CALIFORNIA ‘ A lawsuit that began with a dispute about copyright infringement has ballooned into a battle that could have a major impact on online publishers. When posting on the Internet, few worry about the legal consequences in other states, but a case in California could change that.
The California Supreme Court will hear a case this fall that has the potential to determine whether people publishing Web sites in other states are subject to lawsuits in California’s courts.
In December 1999, the DVD Copy Control Association filed a copyright lawsuit in California against Michael Pavlovich, then a Purdue University student, for posting information on his Web site allowing users to decrypt DVDs. Pavlovich challenged the suit, claiming the state did not have jurisdiction over the case.
Traditionally, courts have required some minimum contacts between a person and a state before people can be required to defend themselves against a civil lawsuit in that jurisdiction. Pavlovich argued that he was living in Indiana at the time and had no commercial interest in California.
The case made it through the appeals court, where the judges ruled that it could proceed because Pavlovich should have known that the posting posed harm to computer and motion-picture businesses in California.
Now the case rests in the hands of the state supreme court. If the appeals court decision is affirmed, those posting information to the Web could find themselves in a similar situation. Any California business could file suit against student journalists in distant states in a California court, forcing them to defend themselves under the burden of travel and legal costs.
The copyright infringement charge against Pavlovich is not an issue before the court. In fact, the jurisdictional question would never have arisen had Pavlovich been sued in Indiana.
‘The case poses significant danger in that it can significantly chill the online speech rights of individual journalists and student journalists who don’t have the resources to protect themselves in every jurisdiction where their message is read,’ said attorney Allonn Levy, who is representing Pavlovich.
The threat the case poses to student journalists across the country prompted the Student Press Law Center, along with the Computer and Communications Industry Association, to file a friend-of-the-court brief in Pavlovich’s favor.
‘The court of appeals’ radical expansion of the scope of personal jurisdiction, especially for information published on the Internet, thus represents a real threat to journalists and publications and to their free-press rights,’ the brief states.