A Little Lawsuit Backstory

I’ve been looking at Google v. Parker, 422 F. Supp. 2d 492 (E.D. Pa. 2006), available at http://www.paed.uscourts.gov/documents/opinions/06D0306P.pdf, as part of my search engine research. In a nutshell, Google archived and linked to various things that upset the plaintiff, including a portion of an e-book that he posted to USENET and a page created by someone else that said some not-nice things about him. He did what any right-thinking American did, and filed a 72-page pro se complaint complaining about copyright infringement, racketeering, and the like. The court gave his complaint the benefit of every doubt but concluded that even if everything he said were comprehensible and true, Google hadn’t infringed his copyrights or done anything else against the law.

The reasoning for the copyright holding is a little interesting, as William Patry observes: Google’s automatic archiving wasn’t sufficiently volitional to count as “copying.” This view provides Google a stronger defense than would conceding the copying but claiming that the copying was nonetheless legal as a fair use. It also represents another step in what appears to be a trend by some courts of repudiating an older theory under which any temporary computer copy—even the copy made as you load a program from a hard drive into memory—is a potentially infringing “copy” for copyright purposes.

The opinion is succinct, and short on facts, but I was curious enough to try to reconstruct what I could of the context. The court only explicitly clues in readers a few times, with offhand references to the plaintiff’s “website on seduction advice.” That’s right, this is a case about how to be a player. And when you look more closely, it appears that much of the brouhaha concerns jealousies and tensions within, well, the community of seduction-advice panders and procurers.

Item the first: The plaintiff’s website, mentioned in the opinion, is a slightly obsessive but oddly compelling collection of e-books about how to pick up hotties. With a dense terminology of initialisms and terms of art, it provides the usual assortment of massively stereotyped analysis of how dating and seduction work and how to game the system to one’s sexual advantage.

Item the second: The plaintiff’s e-book most at issue in the suit is “29 Reasons Not to Be A Nice Guy.” To which USENET group did he post it? Alt.seduction.fast, I believe.

Item the third: A little quick Googling (ironic, no) reveals this letter to the editor of the Houston Press. Our plaintiff claims to be the originator of the term “pivot,” as applied to “a woman a man goes out with ‘as friends’ specifically for the purpose of building his reputation.” The source? His 29 Reasons. He wants a little attribution credit for the book and for his web site.

Item the fourth: The allegedly defamatory content that Google distributed? The “RayFAQ,” according to the court. It goes way back—to 1998, at least—and appears to consist of various documentation of the plaintiff’s unsavory USENET history, and his harassing posts to a.s.f. Here’s one version. For more docmentation on a man sometimes described as a “newsloon,” see this description of some of his other litigation.

In short, this was not a suit against Google because Google seemed like a rich defendant. It was not a suit trying to stop search engine caching. It was a highly personal dispute that spilled out of USENET and is more about ego, reputation, and attribution than about any more rarified legal matters.

I like law, but I love facts. It’s a rare lawsuit without at least some interesting backstory, and often the backstory is the best part.

If you would like to share in the fun, there’s another recent Google case that’s just as good. Have a look at Langdon v. Google, 1:06-cv-00319-JJF (D. Delaware complaint filed May 17, 2006). (Eric Godman has a quick take on the case. I don’t share his “ennui” with pro se complaints against search engines—I think their rise tells us something significant about the cultural importance of search engines.) If you want to find out more about Langdon’s case, start with his sites at ChinaIsEvil.com and NCJusticeFraud.com. Both are quite interesting.