Archive for the 'Defamation' Category

#Illegal #Infringement : Defamation & Social Media

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By Richard Stobbe

Can a hashtag constitute defamation?

In an Ontario case involving a music collaboration gone wrong, the answer apparently is yes. The dispute involved Mr. Johnson, who was allegedly a songwriter and music producer. Ms. Rakhmanova was also a song writer and signer. The two musicians collaborated on several tracks which were later the subject of a bitter dispute.

According to the judgement, Mr. Johnson released the tracks online, over the objections of Ms. Rakhmanova. At one point, after the songs were mixed and mastered, Ms. Rakhmanova requested that Mr. Johnson sign a recording contract, to memorialize the joint-authorship and ownership of the tracks, including equal publishing credit. Mr. Johnson refused to sign the contract since, according to the judgement, he intended to claim sole ownership over the three songs. Ms. Rakhmanova withdrew her consent to the release of her melodies and vocal tracks.  By then, however, the track had already been released online.  Mr. Johnson failed to properly account for any revenue or royalties, and did not include proper attribution of Ms. Rakhmanova’s contributions: her picture and name were omitted from certain track names.

Ms. Rakhmanova then launched a series of online communications – through emails, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram accounts and SoundCloud posts – demanding removal of the content, and generally calling out Mr. Johnson for his conduct that, in her view, could be described as “…#stealing“, “infringing of my copyright“, “#piracy” “#plagiarism“, “#Infringement“, “#Illegal“, and characterizing Mr. Johnson as akin to “con artists who shamelessly peddle stolen acappellas“…

In Johnson v. Rakhmanova, 2018 ONSC 5258 (CanLII), the Court reviewed a defamation claim by Mr. Johnson, based on comments of this type. Interestingly, the Court flagged the defamatory elements in the various extracts, specifically highlighting certain hashtags such as “#piracy” “#plagiarism”, “#Infringement”, “#Illegal”. While none of the social media posts consisted of only hashtags (there was always more content included in the post), it is worth noting that, for certain posts, the judge highlighted the hashtag alone as constituting the only defamatory element. This suggests that, in the right context, a well-placed hashtag can constitute a defamatory statement.

A finding of defamation raises a presumption that the words complained of were false, that they were communicated with malice and that the plaintiff suffered damage.  That presumption of falsity is rebutted by the defendant proving truth or justification.  In the end, the Court took the view that most of these defamatory statements were accurate and truthful and therefore justified. And therefore not defamatory. The court dismissed Mr. Johnson’s defamation claim in any event, and awarded costs to Ms. Rakhmanova.

 

Calgary -7:00 MST

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Defamation with the Click of a Mouse: Assessing Damages

By Richard Stobbe

In the midst of a challenging period for a condominium owners association in a property located in Costa Rica, the president of the association resigned in frustration. Someone had overheard a rumour that the president resigned because he had been accused of theft. This rumour was false and when it was repeated by email – an email sent by means of the trusty ‘reply-all’ feature – all 37 condo owners were copied with the defamatory rumours.

An Ontario court recently rendered a decision in this email defamation case (McNairn v Murphy, 2017 ONSC 1678 (CanLII)), noting that the defamation occurred in ‘cyberspace’: “Communications via the Internet such as email, are potentially more pervasive than other forms of communication since control over its distribution is lost in numerous people may have access to it [and an] email containing a defamatory statement may be sent by [a] recipient to others who in turn may send it to an even larger audience. The Internet has the extraordinary capacity to replicate a defamatory statement, in [its] sleep. As a result, the mode in extent of publication, is [a] particularly significant consideration in assessing general damages [in]Internet defamation cases.”

In awarding damages of $160,000 against two defendants, the court noted that damages in defamation cases are assumed if publication of defamatory statements is evidenced, assuming there are no defences. The defamed individual need not show any specific loss. General damages in defamation cases can serve three functions:

(a) to console the plaintiff for the distress suffered in the publication of the defence;

(b) to repair the harm to the plaintiff’s reputation including, where relevant, business reputation; and

(c) to vindicate the plaintiff’s reputation.

The court applied the following six factors in determining general damages in defamation cases:

1. the plaintiff’s position and standing;

2. the nature and seriousness of the defamatory statements;

3. the mode or type of publication;

4. the absence or refusal to retract or apologize for the statements;

5. the conduct and motive of the defendant; and

6. the presence of aggravating or mitigating circumstances.

Defamation by means of mouse click is easy to do.

And, it should be noted, it’s not that difficult to make a full retraction and apology by the click of a mouse, particularly in a small community of 37 individuals. From the facts available in this case, an unreserved retraction and sincere apology may have been worth $160,000.

Calgary – 07:00 MT

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Online Defamation & Libel: The Trump Effect

By Richard Stobbe

It’s not often that our little blog intersects with such titanic struggles as the U.S. presidential race – and by using the term “titanic” I certainly don’t mean to suggest that anything disastrous is in the future.

After the New York Times published personal allegations of sexual assault against presidential candidate Donald Trump, the candidate’s lawyers promptly fired a shot across the bow, threatening legal action for libel and demanding that the article be removed from the Times’s website. Last week, the lawyer for the New York Times responded to lawyers for Mr.  Trump with a succinct defense of their publication of the article, arguing “We did what the law allows: We published newsworthy information about a subject of deep public concern.”

If this had happened in Canada, the law would almost certainly favour the position taken by the Times. In Quan v. Cusson, [2009] 3 SCR 712, the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed the defense of “responsible communication on matters of public interest” permitting journalists to report on matters of public interest. That case, interestingly, dealt with an Ontario police officer who attended in New York City shortly after the events of September 11, 2001 in order to assist with the search and rescue effort at Ground Zero. The officer sued for defamation after a newspaper published articles alleging that he had misrepresented himself to the New York authorities and possibly interfered with the rescue operation. As noted by the CBA this defense of responsible journalism applies if:

  • the news was urgent, serious, and of public importance,
  • the journalist used reliable sources, and
  • the journalist tried to get and report the other side of the story.

 

Calgary – 07:00 MST

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Social Media Defamation: the #creeper decision

By Richard Stobbe

A dispute between suburban neighbours escalated and spilled over into social media when one of the neighbours vented on Facebook. The Facebook posts suggested that the plaintiff was a “nutter” and a “creep” who deployed a system of cameras and mirrors to keep the defendant’s backyard and young children under 24-hour surveillance. There was no evidence of any such system. Once the initial comments were posted, they were widely disseminated among the defendant’s 2,000 Facebook “friends” and potentially viewed by any Facebook users due to the “public” settings on the defendant’s Facebook account.

This in turn prompted other comments from the defendant’s Facebook “friends” such as a “pedo”, “#creeper”, “nutter”, “freak” (and more). After about 27 hours, the posts were deleted from the defendant’s account, but by then the same posts had propagated through other Facebook pages ; the court noted dryly that “The phrase ‘gone viral’ would seem to be an apt description.”

The plaintiff, a middle school teacher, was obviously concerned that the posts, as published, could cause him among other things to lose his job or face disciplinary action at his place of employment.

In Pritchard v. Van Nes, 2016 BCSC 686 (CanLII), the court noted that the social media posts constituted attacks on the plaintiff’s character which “were completely false and unjustified. [The plaintiff] has, as a consequence of the defendant’s thoughtless, reckless actions, suffered serious damage to his reputation, and for the reasons set out herein he is entitled to a substantial award of damages.”

The court awarded general damages for defamation of $50,000 and additional punitive damages of $15,000, plus costs.

(See our Defamation Archive)

Calgary – 07:00 MST

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Online Defamation: Linking and Liking

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By Richard Stobbe

Defamatory content on the internet?? Throw a metaphorical rock into the ether and you’ll hit something that meets the definition of defamatory content. In order to establish a claim for defamation, a plaintiff must establish that:
(a) the words are defamatory, in the sense that they would tend to lower the plaintiff’s reputation in the eyes of a “reasonable person”;
(b) the words refer to the plaintiff; and
(c) the words were published, in the sense that they were communicated to at least one person other than the plaintiff.

In Canada, this is the same basic test whether the medium is an old-school print newspaper, a neighbourhood newsletter, a personal blog, or an online comments section. While defamation can be difficult to establish, the law appears to have settled on a few rules around linking to allegedly defamatory content. Two recent U.S. cases addressed this issue, and U.S. commentators have even pointed back for guidance to a watershed Canadian case from 2011 (which we wrote about here).

In Life Designs Ranch Inc. v. Sommer the court reaffirmed that linking to defamatory content does not, by itself, constitute a publication of that content: “…a URL is not qualitatively different from a mere reference. Therefore, we hold Mr. Sommer did not republish allegedly defamatory material when he posted on his website: ‘For more info click or cut and paste the link ….’ ”

Going one step further, what if the link is more than just a link? The court in Slozer and Donches v Slattery reviewed a situation where the defamatory content was linked in a post, and then that post was “Liked” on Facebook by the defendant. The court said: “…by providing a link to the challenged posting, without reiterating the content of that posting did not initiate a republication. Her motivations and her designation of the link with a “like” as alleged by Appellants, is not equivalent to a reiteration of the defamatory content as to constitute republication.”

Calgary – 10:00 MT

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Social Media Law (Part 3: Defamation)

The use of social means to engage in defamation is nothing new. Indeed, defamation requires the very social element of publication. Social media – Facebook pages or posts, tweets, blogs and online comments – merely make defamation easier and more pervasive.

Canadian courts have struggled to balance the interests of free speech with the interests of individuals who wish to challenge and find redress for defamatory statements. A recent Ontario case has framed the issue as follows:

     “There are few things more cowardly and insidious than an anonymous blogger who posts spiteful and defamatory comments about reputable member of the public and then hides behind the electronic curtain provided by the Internet. The Defendant confuses freedom of speech with freedom of defamation. There are, undoubtedly, legitimate anonymous Internet posts: persons critical of autocratic or repressive regimes, for example, or legitimate whistleblowers. The Defendant is not one of those people. The law will afford his posts all the protection that they deserve, which is to say none.”  Manson v. John Doe , 2013 ONSC 628 (CanLII),

The test laid out by the Supreme Court of Canada (Grant v. Torstar Corp., 2009 SCC 61 (CanLII)) is as follows: In order to establish a claim for defamation a plaintiff must establish that:

a)   the impugned words are defamatory, in the sense that they would tend to lower the plaintiff’s reputation in the eyes of a reasonable person;

b)   the words in fact refer to the plaintiff; and

c)   the words were published, i.e., that they were communicated to at least one person other than the plaintiff.

In Manson, the court ordered the defendant to pay damages of $100,000 plus aggravated damages of $50,000 and costs. However, the defenant remains anonymous.

Another recent decision in Baglow v. Smith, 2012 ONCA 407 (CanLII), hints at the court’s willingness to permit parties to engage in a heated online political debate, without crossing the line of defamation. In that case, the court observed: “Commentators engaging in the cut and thrust of political discourse in the internet blogosphere can be fervent, if not florid, in the expression of their views.” In the lower court, the statements made in this “cut and thrust” were determined not to constitute defamation. However, on appeal, the court decided the matter was suitable for a full trial and overturned the lower court findings. This is one case to watch.

Related Reading: ipblog’s Defamation Archive

Calgary – 07:00 MST

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Online Defamation: Injunctions Against Google in Canada

Courtesy of GoogleHow easy is it to get an injunction against Google? In Nazerali v. Mitchell, a man complained of online defamation, and obtained a preliminary injunction against the author of the allegedly defamatory content, the hosting company (Nozone, Inc.), the domain name registrar (GoDaddy) and Google. The Court ordered the injunction, which included the order prohibiting Google “from permitting the Google.com or Google.ca search engines from returning any search result from www.deepcapture.com.”  Essentially this results in shutting down the (allegedly) offending website, since the court considered it “impossible surgically to eliminate just the offending phrases”. While this seems to be a dramatic result, considering it was obtained on an ex-parte basis (the other side did not appear at the hearing), it is not without precedent in Canada.

In Canadian National Railway Company v. Google Inc., 2010 ONSC 3121 (CanLII), the court issued an interim injunction requiring Google to remove a blog hosted on Google’s Blogspot platform.

The injunction in Nazerali v. Mitchell was time-limited and is set to expire tomorrow (December 2).

Hat tip to Alan Macek for highlighting this case.

Calgary – 07:00 MST

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SCC Defamation Decision

This is a story we’ve been following for several years (see our past posts here: Update: Canadian Online Defamation & Hyperlink Case). It’s based on an allegation of online defamation brought by businessman Wayne Crookes, which ultimately focussed on one issue. To succeed in an action for defamation, a person must prove on a balance of probabilities that the defamatory words were “published”. If you hyperlink to defamatory content, can you be liable for “publishing” that defamatory content?

In a decision this week in the case of Crookes v. Newton, 2011 SCC 47, the country’s top court has upheld the lower court decisions, and decided that there was no publication of the defamatory content in this case. A hyperlink, by itself, is not “publication” of the defamatory content to which it refers. To decide otherwise would “seriously restrict the flow of information on the Internet and, as a result, freedom of expression,” according to the court.

Some in the court pointed out that a blanket statement that hyperlinks can never constitute publication is too broad, since links can take many forms. The consensus is that a mere general reference to a website is not enough to find publication. Anyone who links to salacious gossip can now breathe a little easier.

Calgary – 07:00 MDT

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Update: Canadian Online Defamation & Hyperlink Case

The Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) is currently considering its verdict in the long-running case of Crookes v Newton The BC Court of Appeal’s 2009 decision (in Crookes v. Newton 2009 BCCA 392) held that Mr. Newton was not liable for hyperlinks to defamatory content. In short, if a person merely hyperlinks to a defamatory site, that act alone does not make that person a “publisher” of the defamatory material found at the hyperlinked site.  Mr. Crookes appealed that decision to the SCC. Oral arguments in the case were heard this week, and a decision is expected soon. With luck, the ruling will clarify the law on liability for hyperlinks – something that has far-reaching consequences for use of the internet in Canada.

Related Reading:

Can you be anonymous online in Canada?

Is a Website Operator Liable for User Comments?

Defamation Update: Hyperlink Is Not Publication

Online Defamation Update: Doctrine of “presumed publication”

Calgary – 10:00 MST

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Online Defamation Update: Cohen v. Google

Online defamation has always been about two issues: there’s the legal question of whether the online comments are “defamatory” according to the standard legal tests, but before you get to that stage, you need to know who is writing the defamatory comments.

That’s often where the inquiry starts and stops. Since online anonymity is so hard to pierce, the identity of the poster of defamatory comments is never known, and the person who is defamed has no-one to sue for defamation.  A court order on Monday has shed some light on the process of getting over that anonymity hurdle.  In the case of Cohen v. Google Inc., Index No. 100012/09 (N.Y. Co. August 17, 2009) (Madden, J., J.S.C.) (related story), a Canadian model has obtained an order compelling Google to disclose the identity of the author of the alleged defamatory comments.  “Pre-complaint disclosure” is not new, but this case has attracted attention because of the elements: a New York model, Google, and blogging.

In Canada, similar orders have been made in online defamation cases. In a 2009 decision in the case of Warman v. Fournier, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice ordered the disclosure of all personal information, including name, email and IP address, of eight anonymous posters in a defamation case.

Calgary – 14:00 MST

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SCC Upholds Internet Defamation Decision

Last Friday, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the decision in Fromm v. Warman, to award $30,000 in damages for internet defamation. The judgment of the Court of Appeal for Ontario, 2008 ONCA 842, handed down in December, 2008 [Link to Court of Appeal Decision] was upheld. Warman brought an action against Fromm for defamatory postings on various internet websites. Fromm took the position that the comments were “fair comment” on matters of public interest. The court upheld the finding that the postings were defamatory.

Calgary – 09:30 MST

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Defamation Update: Hyperlink Is Not Publication

We have previously commented on the series of defamation lawsuits  commenced by Wayne Crookes.  These lawsuits are resulting in court judgements which have established some guidance in this emerging area.  The latest decision, Crookes v. Wikimedia Foundation Inc., 2008 BCSC 1424 has established that linking to defamatory content does not, in itself, amount to publication of that content.  In other words, the publisher of an article which links to the defamatory content, without reproducing it, is not liable for the defamation. The court stated that “the mere creation of a hyperlink in a website does not lead to a presumption that persons read the contents of the website and used the hyperlink to access the defamatory words.”  And the court went on to say that “reference to an article containing defamatory content without repetition of the comment itself should not be found to be a republication of such defamatory content”.

The court’s analysis refers to evidence of whether anyone linked to and read the defamatory content, leaving open the question of whether different facts would have resulted in a different conclusion.  Liability may arise where there is ample evidence that numerous readers used the link to access the defamatory content, or in a situation where the linked content is used to refer directly to the defamed person.  The court speculated that if an article states “the truth about [the defamed person] is found here” and “here” is hyperlinked to the specific defamatory words, then the publisher of the article may be liable.

There was also a recent defamation decision in Ontario, giving rise to $50,000 in damages for online defamation.

A third decision, in Manson v. Moffat, [2008] O.J. No. 1697, resulted in a damage award of $20,000 for internet libel, and an injunction was issued against the U.S. defendant.  The case arose from false statements posted online relating to the plaintiff’s patent.

Calgary – 10:00 MST

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Sticks & Stones: Online Defamation & Privacy Decision

What happens when a resident of B.C. posts defamatory comments on a usenet group about a resident of Australia?

In this case, two men were engaged in a protracted and ugly name-calling session in the usenet group “alt.suicide.holiday”, described as a discussion forum for persons who were feeling depressed and suicidal. In Griffin v. Sullivan, 2008 BCSC 827, a BC court has reviewed the issues around online defamation and breach of privacy.  The decision resulted in an award of damages for defamation of $150,000 and an award of $25,000 in damages for breach of privacy as well as a permanent injunction against the B.C. man.

The claim for breach of privacy arose when the B.C. man published the name and address of the plaintiff Australian man.  Names and addresses are often considered public information; however, the court found that the disclosure constituted breach of privacy (under the very seldom-used B.C. Privacy Act) since the Australian man had previously maintained his anonymity in the usenet group, and group members often shared sensitive information about themselves.

The other interesting element of the decision is that the court did not review the fundamental question of whether anyone in B.C. (or anywhere else in Canada) actually read the defamatory postings.   In Crookes v. Yahoo, 2008 BCCA 165, the Court of Appeal made it clear that merely alleging that something has been posted on the internet is not, on its own, sufficient to show that publication can be presumed, as we reported earlier.

Names can never hurt you… but they can result in significant damage awards.

Calgary – 14:30 MST

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Domain Name & Defamation Case

A disgruntled ex-employee registers the dot-com version of the employer’s dot-ca domain name.  Then, just before leaving on vacation out of the country, the ex-employee directs the dot-com domain name to a gay porn site.  The employer sues for damages.

In a recent judgement (Inform Cycle Ltd. v. Draper, 2008 ABQB 369), the Court has awarded damages against the ex-employee for passing-off and defamation, to the tune of $15,000.00.  The case is interesting for a few reasons: first, it is one of the few decisions dealing with both online corporate defamation (defamation of business reputation on the internet) and domain name issues.  And it is interesting for the summary way in which the Court concluded that damages were appropriate.

In the B.C. case of Crookes v. Yahoo, the Court disposed of an online defamation claim by reasoning that there was no evidence that the alleged defamatory material was accessed by someone in B.C.  “Publication is an essential element for an action in defamation,” said the judge. “In this case … [t]here is no evidence anyone read the material in British Columbia.”

Contrast that with the analysis in the Inform Cycle case: “There is no record of the number of people who were forwarded to the gay pornographic website…the people referred to the ‘.com’ site over that 16 day period were people who had made an error by choosing ‘.com’ instead of ‘.ca’. We do not know how many people made that error. We do not know how many actually thought that the referral to the porn site was deliberate rather than a computer or internet glitch. We do not know if anyone, or how many, actually believed that Inform was involved in the porn site or business.” (emphasis added) Despite those apparent gaps in the evidence, the Court had no problem concluding that defamation had occurred, and that damages were appropriate.  The difference might be explained (at least partly) by the fact that the alleged defamatory comments in the Crookes case were made in a members-only discussion forum. It’s likely that the nature of the site where the domain name was directed also has something to do with it.  It is clear that further clarity on these issues is required.

Calgary – 15:30 MST

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Online Defamation Update: Doctrine of “presumed publication”

This is the story of online defamation allegations levelled against Yahoo, Google, Wikipedia, MySpace and others by a B.C. man who says he was defamed by certain online postings. We have been following this defamation case since it was initiated (See:earlier post ).

The BC Court of Appeal has now dismissed the appeal relating to Yahoo.  In Crookes v. Yahoo, 2008 BCCA 165, the Court has made it clear that merely alleging that something has been posted on the internet is not, on its own, sufficient to show that publication can be presumed.  In other words, just because it was online, doesn’t mean anyone read it.  This is important because “publication” must be proved in order to win a defamation case.  If there’s no publication, then there can be no defamation. In the case of newspapers and broadcasts, publication is presumed.  The BC Court of Appeal has made it clear that this presumption does not always apply with the internet.

In this case, the allegedly defamatory comments were made on a members-only site, and the court said: “In Wiebe [Wiebe v Bouchard, a 2005 defamation case] significance was attached to the fact the libellous statements were posted on the internet nationwide as well as being made available in the main public library in Victoria.  But they were posted on a Government of Canada website and, as was noted, were made available to everyone in the country who had a computer.  By contrast, the statements that are the subject of Mr. Crookes’ action were posted on a website with restricted access that was not available to the public.  The basis for any presumption that might be said to have been recognized in Wiebe does not exist here.  I do not consider the mere fact a statement was posted on a website with the kind of restricted access there was in this case supports the presumption it was read by anyone in British Columbia.”

This is a helpful step forward in clarifying online defamation law in Canada.

Calgary – 10:45 MST

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Online Defamation Decision

There have been a string of cases in Canada dealing with defamation in the internet context, providing useful guidance in this area.  It seems that old fashioned defamation in hard-copy newspapers will remain a quaint memory from the last century.  The last case we covered was from British Columbia – the latest decision comes out of Ontario.

In Warman v. Fromm and Canadian Association for Free Expression Inc., (Ontario Superior Court of Justice – Case No. 04-CV-26550SR), the court reviewed a string of defamatory postings and rejected the defence of fair comment.  The court awarded general and aggravated damages totaling $30,000, and ordered the defendants to post full retractions within 10 days.

Calgary – 10:35 MST

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