Scientology at odds with Internet critics; Church writings were
posted on the global computer network. The church sued for
Saturday April 1, 1995
By Reid Kanaley
Trouble in cyberspace woke Dennis L. Erlich on a recent Monday
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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)