Scientology at odds with Internet critics; Church writings were posted on the global compu

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Scientology at odds with Internet critics; Church writings were posted on the global computer network. The church sued for copyright infringement. Philadelphia Inquirer Saturday April 1, 1995 By Reid Kanaley Trouble in cyberspace woke Dennis L. Erlich on a recent Monday morning. The former minister of the Church of Scientology, now an outspoken church critic, was summoned at 7:30 a.m. by loud knocks at his door. Outside Erlich's suburban Los Angeles home was a gaggle of lawyers and police armed with a writ of seizure - a federal judge's permission to search his house and his computer and seize any copyrighted material of the Church of Scientology. A computer game, this wasn't. Over the next six hours, the visitors copied and erased hundreds of computer files and removed a shelf of books and almost 400 computer discs. Erlich's offense? He had used the Internet as a soapbox to quote and criticize the religious writings of Scientology, a Los Angeles-based sect founded by L. Ron Hubbard, the late science fiction writer. The Feb. 13 incident was one of the most dramatic so far in a complex dispute that is forcing a reexamination of the meaning of copyrights, trade secrets, civil liberty and free speech in the new digital universe. Current copyright law evolved to provide ownership rights for intellectual material in "physical manifestations" such as books, computer disks or tapes, said David Farber, a computer science professor at the University of Pennsylvania. It will take years, he and other experts say, to sort out how the law applies to digital bits traversing the Internet, a chaotic medium of millions of linked computers. In the interim, there is the dilemma confronting Erlich. Scientology lawyer Helena Kobrin has called Erlich, 48, a "copyright terrorist," unconcerned with the rights of others. "The issue here is an issue of copyright information, trade secret misappropriation," Kobrin said. "As a copyright owner you really have no choice but to pursue your remedies." Erlich has denied doing anything illegal and insists he is protected under copyright provisions that permit "fair use" of limited quotations for the purposes of instruction or criticism. His intention, he said, was to warn people away from a sect that he believes is a cult. In an interview, he described the raid on his house as "real Gestapo." It was carried out under federal copyright law as part of a lawsuit filed by the publishing arm of the Church of Scientology. Pending further court action, Erlich remains under a judge's temporary order not to quote or copy church writings. "I am being silenced. I am being censored. I am having a copyright law applied to my religious sermons. I'm being shut up, slapped down," said Erlich, who left the church in 1982 and now manages a business that maintains and repairs photo processing machines. Since the raid, Erlich has drawn the support of a growing contingent of cyber-libertarians, who say the church has used the copyright issue to engage in a thinly veiled assault on freedom of speech and religion. Lawyers from a major San Francisco firm, Morrison & Foerster, signed on last week to defend Erlich for free in what they see as a First Amendment case. The Scientology writings in question are published and unpublished "sacred scriptures" penned by Hubbard. Church officials have declared some of these so sensitive that reading them without years of high-level spiritual training can be harmful. Among the material placed on the Internet were Hubbard's "revelations" that the earth was peopled by space aliens 75 million years ago. Critics contend that the documents expose the church as a cult that preys on the gullibility and bank accounts of its believers. Beginning late last year, chapter-length portions of the Hubbard writings began appearing on the Internet as articles posted in a three-year-old electronic bulletin board started by Scientology critics but also frequented by church supporters. The new Scientology postings, sent from "anonymous remailers" that strip the return addresses from E-mail, had the effect of turning acrimony between the camps into open warfare, waged before computer users around the globe. Erlich, who got onto the Internet in August, said he began quoting and commenting on the documents, as well as on portions of others that he admits he posted himself. Several other church critics were doing the same, most anonymously. In January, the dispute escalated when messages quoting Scientology writings began to get zapped off the Internet. In a move abhorrent within the cyberspace culture of free expression, they were being "canceled" across the Internet, apparently by pro-church readers. "They have basically gone on a guerrilla war on the Internet," said Jon Noring, an on-line publishing entrepreneur who has been monitoring the dispute. On Jan. 4, church attorneys sent electronic messages to the operators of several of the anonymous remailing computers demanding that they stop any messages headed for the Scientology discussion group. And on Jan. 11, Kobrin issued a special Internet message requesting the cancellation of the Scientology discussion group altogether. Her reasons included the alleged ongoing copyright violations and an assertion that the discussion group's title, alt.religion.scientology, violated trademark law by containing the church's registered trade name. Like the earlier message to the remailers, this request was decried and then ignored by the tens of thousands of computer system operators who received it. Kobrin last week called her request a "dead issue." In mid-February, the church also requested and got police in Finland to force the operator of a well-known anonymous E-mail service there to identify someone who had used the service to post unpublished Hubbard writings. Then came the lawsuit against Erlich. Also named as defendants were Tom Klemesrud, who runs a computer bulletin board in California, where Erlich has his E-mail account, and Netcom On-Line Communication Services Inc. of San Jose, Calif., which provides the Internet connection for Klemesrud's bulletin board. Kobrin said Klemesrud and Netcom should be held responsible for passing along copyrighted material from Erlich. "The larger issue is that people involved in using the Internet, whatever part of the Internet they are using, really need to take responsibility for what's going on there. You can't take an ostrich approach," Kobrin said. Noring said extending that kind of liability on the freewheeling Internet would kill it. "Some could call me Chicken Little. I don't know, but I think in this case the sky is falling," he said. Holding third parties on the Internet responsible for catching possible copyright violations as data rocket through their computer systems is like "suing the telephone company for a copyright violation when someone sends a fax," said Randolph Rice, Netcom's lawyer. Rice argued in court papers filed last week that interpreting copyright law as the Church of Scientology asks "could impair the First Amendment rights of millions of Internet users." The lawsuit seeks a permanent injunction against Erlich, Klemesrud and Netcom, as well as $120,000 in damages per copyright infringement. Noring said he had seen postings of Scientology material that "clearly did exceed" the fair use guidelines of copyright law. He is, nevertheless, highly critical of the church for engaging in what he sees as an effort to use the copyright issue to intimidate critics. Since the lawsuit was filed, the Hubbard writings have begun to show up in a widening circle of newsgroups, and the church has threatened additional legal action against those who post them. On Feb. 27, California computer programmer Grady Ward received E-mail from Kobrin demanding that he stop reposting the Hubbard writings. Ward was defiant. "I can guarantee you that they will be continually reposted," he said in an interview. "They have a perfect right to believe anything they want, but when they get on our turf and tell us what we can talk about ... I think they picked on the wrong group to try and intimidate." GRAPHICS: PHOTO (1) 1. Dennis Erlich (right) was among those sued after he posted Church of Scientology materials on the Internet without permission. (The Los Angeles Times / CLARENCE WILLIAMS)


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