(2015 Update: Fast forward two years: Matthew Chan and the First Amendment prevailed on appeal.)
For five years extortionletterinfo.com (ELI) and its founder/operator Matthew Chan (who has just resigned from the editor-in-chief role) have been fighting against copyright trolls, but ones of a different genera: mostly stock image companies.
Recently, in addition to those companies, another type of copyright troll has drawn ELI’s attention: Linda Ellis, the author of a surprisingly popular yet amateurish poem — “The Dash.” Admittedly, this poem is built around a decent metaphor: life as a dash between two dates on a tombstone. Other than that, I can compare the quality of this work only to pathetic pre-teen rhymes. I know, I know: I risk to sound like a snob, but I did study (and write) poetry and I hope I know what I’m talking about.
Anyway, I digress. If there is something written, and people find it inspirational, it’s not my freaking business to judge their tastes. Given the nature of the subject, this poem ended up on webpages of funeral homes, churches, hospitals, schools, charities… in other words, people and organizations who are prone to be bullied into quietly paying — due to their utmost respect to the law and fear of bad publicity. You have already figured out that this phenomenon has been cynically exploited by Linda Ellis and her employee John W. Jolin (who is not even a lawyer, more like a marklutz). Just like in the case of Bittorent pornotrolls, if Ellis’s “intellectual property” was found on some website, Jolin would send out a nasty letter demanding thousands of dollars and refusing to hear any excuses.
ELI had a forum dedicated to Linda Ellis, so her victims could find comfort and advice (not different from what we are about). Naturally, the attention had been hurting the bottom line of Ellis’s “business” of collecting easy cash, so she was not happy. In addition, the temperature of emotions in some comments on the ELI forum reached the boiling point: Ellis’s home address (albeit from the public source) was published, and Ellis interpreted some forum statements as threats. She sued Matthew Chan for stalking in a Georgia county court, and she has won (emphasis is mine):
Because the Respondent’s course of conduct was directed at Ms. Ellis through the posted messages and information relating to Ms. EIlis, and the conduct was intended (and in fact did) create fear and intimidation in the Petitioner, Respondent is hereby ORDERED to remove all posts relating to Ms. Ellis.
I don’t want to take sides¹ — mostly because, while visiting ELI fairly often, I almost never read the part of the site dedicated to Linda Ellis. What is appalling is the judgment per se: Linda Ellis has won a permanent protection order against her alleged “stalker” (who, by the way, never directly communicated with her), and the entire section of the site has been effectively censored.
Although (again, I can’t judge) some comments might warrant removal, prohibiting people from discussing Linda Ellis at all is a dangerous overreach. As a well-known First Amendment attorney and blogger Ken White noted,
When is writing about someone the equivalent of writing to them?
The distinction is an important one. Writing about someone enjoys broad First Amendment protection. Writing to someone can, under some circumstances, be treated as harassment, or as a threat, or as a violation of an existing restraining order — especially if the contact is unwelcome and threatening.
The judge apparently did not bother to think about this distinction.
One thing I want to be clear about: I’m not going to open a “second front” and pick up the fight with Linda Ellis: not because her extortion-like “business” is not worth exposure and counter-measures, but mostly because I have very limited resources and cannot work towards fixing all the world’s injustices. My experience shows that the only way to achieve visible results is to focus on a narrow issue. So this is the only article dedicated to this particular troll.
I simply wanted to write this post to spread the word about our brothers-in-arms’ troubles and to remind everyone that censorship is not a theoretical possibility, especially when a critic interferes with a serious money-making.
- extortionletterinfo.com forum: ELI responses: Media Coverage of Matthew Chan PPO.
- Permanent protective order. Notice how the cover sheet heading is for “domestic” cases meaning disgruntled spouses, family members, or significant others.
- April Brown, a charity auctioneer, has a blog dedicated to Linda Ellis’s copyright trolling activities:
- EFF Deeplinks blog: Georgia Court Censorship Order Threatens Message Boards Everywhere by Kurt Opsahl.
- TechDirt: Georgia State Court Issues Censorship Order Blocking Free Speech On Anti-Copyright Troll Message Board by Mike Masnick.
- Daily Dot: Court hits anti-copyright-troll website with censorship order by Kevin Collier.
- ArsTechnica: “I made some stupid posts”: Anti-troll site gagged after threats against poet by Timothy Lee.
- Copyrighttrolls.com blog: “The Dash” has hit the fan by Robert Krausankas.
- 8/29/2013: Press release: “Anti-troll website founder files appeal against Georgia censorship order.”
- 7/17/2014: Court of appeals orders Georgia censorship case transferred to Georgia Supreme Court.
¹ Clarification: I don’t want to take sides in this particular dispute due to lack of time to research the details, but obviously I’m with ELI in a wider sense. It is mostly a rhetorical remark to stress the dangers of the censorious judgment without concentrating on the details of a particular controversy.