November 28, 1995
Web posted at: 9 p.m. EST
From Correspondent Don Knapp
SAN JOSE, California (CNN) -- Scientologists call it a victory. In a preliminary ruling released Monday, a federal judge in San Jose, California, said a company that provides Internet access may be held liable for alleged copyright infringement by a user of its service.
The Church of Scientology claims Netcom Communication Services should have prevented former church minister Dennis Erlich from putting the writings of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard on the Internet.
"This has nothing to do with ideas," said Helena Kobrin, an attorney for the Church of Scientology. "The only ideas are those of L. Ron Hubbard, who wrote these works. The copyrights to those works and the trade secrets are owned by his successors."
The Church of Scientology maintains copyrights to the works through its Religious Technology Center, and claims they should be considered trade secrets.
According to court records, Erlich, who is now a church critic, began his postings to a Usenet news group through Netcom in 1994. He posted a 17-page transcript of Hubbard's confidential lectures. That was followed later with the postings of other church documents. Usenet is a popular area on the Internet in which users can read or post messages that others with Internet access can read.
Last February, Scientology attorneys secured a court order to raid Erlich's home in Glendale, California. Erlich says they seized 400 computer diskettes, copied them, then deleted his hard drive.
Netcom also claimed a victory of sorts from the ruling. The judge denied a preliminary injunction request from the Church of Scientology to prevent Netcom from posting the documents. The judge said the church had not sufficiently proved its copyright infringement claim.
However, the judge's other ruling -- not to drop Netcom from the suit until it is determined if the Internet service provider can be held liable for what Erlich puts on the Internet -- comes as a first on the question of who is responsible for what is said in cyberspace.
"Netcom does not prescreen and does not normally control content," said Netcom's attorney Randolf Rice. "To require us to control content will stifle speech, be a tremendous economic burden, and will reduce the Internet's utility to all of its users." (198K AIFF sound or 198K WAV sound)
Scientologists believe an Internet provider should pull the plug if informed of a copyright violation, just as they do when they learn a subscriber has placed child pornography on the Internet.
But former members now critical of the Church of Scientology say it only wants to silence their criticism.
The Scientology lawsuit against Erlich goes to trial early next year.
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