No corner of the Web, it appears, is safe for Scientology. Blogger and lawyer Scott Pilutik recently posted a story noting that Scientology was yanking down EBay auctions for used e-meters, the device the church uses for spiritual counseling. EBay allows brand owners -- Louis Vuitton or Rolex, say -- to remove items they believe infringe on their trademark or patent rights. Basically, fakes. But, Pilutik said, the used e-meters being taken down were genuine. Reselling them was no different than putting a for-sale sign on your old Chevy.
"What's actually going on here," he wrote, is that the church is "knowingly alleging intellectual property violations that clearly don't exist."
The current wave of anti-Scientology activity began in January, when a video of Tom Cruise extolling the religion's tech-based approach to enlightenment was leaked onto YouTube, where users holding it up to ridicule copied and recopied it; several sites posted it without hesitation.
It wasn't long before Nick Denton, who as publisher of the blog syndicate Gawker Media had put the video online first, received a legal threat from a law firm representing Scientology, alleging copyright infringement. But Denton refused to take the video down.
"It was an awesome news story," Denton wrote in an e-mail. "If we didn't race to post it up, some other site would have. That, rather than litigation by Scientology, was the fear going through my mind."
The church's whack-a-mole campaign with the Cruise video became a rallying cry for Anonymous, which saw efforts to remove the videos from YouTube as an unwanted incursion into the domain of digital culture, where information and media, copyrighted or no, are often exchanged freely.
Ironically, it is the church's aversion to negative publicity -- and the legal strategy it has long used to prevent it, that has aroused more online ire than any other issue.
The website ChillingEffects .com has posted dozens of cease-and-desist letters sent by Scientology's lawyers to various website and Internet service providers requesting that copyrighted material be removed.
But in the diffuse and often Byzantine world of the Web, some precision legal strikes are more likely to backfire than hit their target. Scientology's use of copyright law appears to be an increasingly losing battle on the Web, said Andrew Bridges, a San Francisco-based intellectual property attorney. "The big question is: Is the copyright serving the purpose of promoting science and the useful arts, or is the purpose essentially the stifling of criticism?"
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