March 30, 1999 4:00 AM PST

Scientologists settle legal battle

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The Church of Scientology International has settled a long-standing legal battle to repossess about 2,000 unpublished and copyrighted documents and keep them from being accessed by computer users in the future.

Under a settlement reached in a U.S. district court earlier this month, a Colorado-based nonprofit group called FACTNet is permanently enjoined to pay the church $1 million if FACTNet is found guilty of future violations of church copyrights.

FACTNet, started by former Scientologist Lawrence Wollersheim, also promised to return all unpublished documents as well as copies, notes, summaries, computer disks, and media that contain material about the so-called Advanced Technology of the Scientology religion.

"They have to give back all of our illegally copied materials written by L. Ron Hubbard," said Warren McShane, president of Religious Technology Center (RTC). Religious Technology Center is the legal name of the Scientologist church.

"Most people that are affiliated with FACTNet also were served with the permanent injunctions, so if they use the materials to further infringe on our copyright, they will be held liable," McShane said.

The settlement could curb misuse of the church's copyrighted material, but the RTC continues to be scrutinized by critics on the Net. Cases such as this have been widely observed because they pit copyrights and online free speech against one another.

The case dates back to 1995 when the church, through its nonprofit subsidiary Bridge Publications, won a court order to seize and search FACTNet computers for copyrighted materials based on comments Wollersheim had made online. After reviewing much of the material, Bridge Publications filed claims charging that FACTNet had illegally copied 1,914 church documents.

The court order doesn't prohibit FACTNet from making "fair use" of copyrighted materials. But the defendants could face a heavy fine if they are found to infringe on the church's copyright down the road.

"RTC or BPI may execute and collect upon [the] judgment against FACTNet to the full extent permitted by law, but only if it is determined that FACTNet has committed an act constituting a violation or contempt of the permanent injunction entered contemporaneously," the settlement states.

None of the disputed materials--most of which Wollersheim and his attorneys say were gathered during the course of earlier legal proceeding--have appeared on FACTNet's Web site.

But the Church of Scientology may have had reason to fear that is where the documents were heading. Others have published the church's "members only" material online. Meanwhile, as the Net has grown in popularity, the RTC has stepped up its legal actions against alleged trademark and copyright violators.

"We've gotten great cooperation from the ISPs around the world in taking action against infringements when they come up," McShane added.

However, the subjects of these lawsuits or cease-and-desist letters often counter that the church is using its high-powered lawyers to pressure online service providers into shutting such sites down, and to silence critics who can reach out to millions of people on the Net.

Citing intellectual property infringement, the church threatened in January 1998 to seek legal recourse against the owner of "scientology-kills.net," which also sells T-shirts bearing the same phrase. The RTC also won a case in a district court in Sweden against Zenon Panoussis, who was ordered to pay the $164,000 for infringing its copyright by distributing confidential records on the Net in 1996.

Those are just a few in the long string of actions taken by the church involving the Internet. The most well-known case against Netcom also was settled in 1996. The church wanted the ISP held liable for alleged copyright infringements on its network.

FACTNet's attorney said the settlement doesn't bar his clients from criticizing the church or threaten their free speech.

"They are enjoined from not breaking the law," said Daniel Leipold, one of several lawyers representing Wollersheim and FACTNet.

"If [Wollersheim] can remember pieces of the material by memory, which he can, he can use them," Leipold added. "He can call them names, he can say anything he wants against them under this agreement. His freedom of speech has not been cut off."

But the FACTNet case does perhaps put to rest one of Scientology's longest-standing digital copyright cases. The case marked the fourth time a Scientology-affiliated organization has sued Wollersheim or FACTNet since his original lawsuit was filed. The court dismissed three earlier claims.

In 1980, FACTNet's founder Wollersheim himself sued the church for damages resulting from his own experience as a member and was awarded $30 million. That sum later was reduced to $2.5 million, which Wollersheim still is fighting to collect.

 

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