January 29, 1998 1:40 PM PST
Scientologists in trademark disputes
The church has threatened to see legal recourse against a Colorado Web site owner if he continues to run a site called "scientology-kills.net," which also sells T-shirts bearing the same phrase.
In the second dispute, the church sent a letter to Tilman Hausherr of Berlin on Monday telling him to remove altered Scientology graphics from his CompuServe home page, which he defends as a parody. For example, the "S" in Scientology was changed into a dollar sign, and the president of the organization's nose was elongated a la Pinocchio to imply that he's a liar.
The warnings are the latest in a long string of actions taken by the church involving the Internet. Online bulletin board operators have been raided, computers have been seized, and Net access providers have been asked to remove Usenet newsgroup postings that the church finds objectionable. In most of these cases, some of which are still pending, the parties stand accused of knowingly distributing the church's copyrighted material or allegedly stolen documents without permission.
These disputes underscore the assertive legal tactics long employed by Scientology, whose lawyers say they will not hesitate to take action against unauthorized use of the church's intellectual property and trademarks. But the operators of "scientology-kills.net" and the so-called parody site allege that the church is trying to censor critics of the organization through arbitrary but costly legal battles.
"I consider Scientology to be a dangerous movement," said Ray Randolph of Fort Collins, Colorado, who produces the "scientology-kills.net" site. "I'm not going to back down. This is a free-speech issue. For this company to try to silence people through trademark disputes is outrageous."
On Friday, lawyers sent a letter to Randolph warning him to terminate use of the name "Scientology" within his registered Net site domain name and on his T-shirts. The Los Angeles attorneys who sent the letter represent the Religious Technology Center, a nonprofit organization that owns the trademark and licenses it to the Church of Scientology International.
The lawyers charge that Randolph's use of the term "dilutes the distinctiveness of the mark," which could "tarnish the reputation of the owner."
"Randolph's whole purpose by putting up false and inflammatory statements is to make it appear that a religion that is helping millions of people better themselves spiritually is actually damaging people," Helena Kobrin, an intellectual property attorney for the Church of Scientology, said today. "This is false and misleading and violates the rights of the trademark owner."
The "scientology-kills.net" site remains up, but CompuServe representatives in Germany suspended Hausherr's page today after sending him a notice that he was suspected of copyright violation. He is appealing that decision.
"It's just a page making fun of Scientology--it's a form of art. Parodies are allowed under German and U.S. law," he said today. "I will call German Compuserve tomorrow and try to work things out. Now I'm busy now trying to move the page elsewhere."
Legal experts say that trademark disputes must be decided on a case-by-case basis--and that Net sites are no exception.
In making its case, the church will have to establish that its name is so well-known that Randolph's Web site dilutes its value or that consumers were deceived into to believing that the church endorsed the site.
The dispute is further complicated by unusual free-speech issues specific to the Internet, such as whether a domain name can contain a sort of editorial statement. On the other hand, Parody sites such as Hausherr's have been protected under other trademark court decisions.
"A trademark right doesn't give you the right to forbid use of the word. What is does give is the right to prevent use of the word in a way the would confuse consumers as to the origin of the goods or the sponsorship of the goods," said Terrence Carroll, a copyright attorney.
"I would say someone has the right to say truthful statements, negative facts, or matters of opinion regarding a product or service, as long as they are not defamatory," he added.
Regardless of the outcome of the two cases, the Church of Scientology will continue to scour the Net for alleged copyright and trademark violations.
"The Internet makes it easier for people to be lawless in a widespread fashion. We along with other copyright holders are dealing with that problem," Kobrin said.