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The Chilling Effects of Legal Threats
2002-01-07 19:04:40

A reasonable doubt for a reasonable fee
-- Dr. Gonzo


After 7 or 8 years of this World Wide Web thing, we've all come to know the story: a great piece of art, of news reporting, of critique or of satire goes up on the Web somewhere. It gets hits, it gets kudos, it gets involvement from the world. And then, one day, it's gone. Why? Where'd it go?

More often than not, there's a pathetic little page linked in where the piece used to be, along the lines of,

I got a cease-and-desist letter today from [name of Bad Guy here]. I think I have a pretty legitimate case, but they're bigger, they're richer, and they've got more lawyers than they know what to do with. I'm just a guy/girl with a computer and an idea. I can't fight them. I'm sorry, but I had to take the site down. Thanks to everyone who enjoyed it.

It's always a heartbreaker to see this. The mind reels -- couldn't they have fought it? Couldn't they have stood up? If we all bend like this, won't they take us out one by one? Am -- uh -- am I next?

The Web has been really spectacular in allowing practically ANYONE with sufficient skillz to publish their dream work. But the flipside of that opportunity to publish is that Web publishers tend to have far less experience with legal issues, and access to legal resources, than traditional publishing powerhouses. We're divided and isolated. Face it: we're easy pickings.

That's why I'm pretty excited about the new project from a coalition of cyberlaw organizations called Chilling Effects. The point of the project is to document and track legal threats against Web publishers and their ilk, with the hope of developing strategies for small publishers to deal with these type of threats.

Maybe with Chilling Effects starting to catch some steam, we'll see a time in the not-so-distant future where First Amendment rights of free expression and a free press are protected on the Internet, instead of squelched de facto by legal teams with too much money and time on their hands -- and too much to lose from letting the truth be told.

Over.  End of Story.  Go home now.

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