Friday, October 21, 2005

High-stakes parody: Scientology plays for keeps

Online parodies and satires are constantly treading a very fine line when using adaptations of copyrighted or trademarked material. As Check Please! noted last year, the line between "fair use" and "infringement" is a fine one and is often not 100% clear until a judge makes a decision in a court case. The most significant factor, in any event, is the target: how likely are they to bring legal action, and how deep are their pockets?

The Church of Scientology scores high on these counts, being notoriously quick to bring very aggressive legal action against virtually any activity which they perceive as impugning their organization. So webmaster Glen Stollery ought to have known that he was bear-baiting when he set up a parody site with the URL "" (now offline) that contained photoshops of Tom Cruise in a straightjacket and the infamous "Cruise electrocuting Oprah" video. Perhaps he thought he was safe since he lives in New Zealand, but as noted on Yahoo News such was not the case. The gears were set in motion, the lawyers called, and the site went down. The reason behind the action, according to Scientology lawyers, was solely the use of a close variant of the word "scientology:"

"That featured pictures of Cruise, arguably the world's most prominent Scientologist, in a straightjacket (that's bride-to-be Katie Holmes in matching restraint-wear), and a video of Cruise "kill[ing]" Oprah Winfrey with a powerful electric current, wasn't an issue, the Scientology camp maintained. It was all about the "m"--the lone letter distinguishing ScienTOMogy from Scientology."

Whether or not this is true may become clearer in coming months, as a new domain has just been registered,, with all the same videos and pictures. It also has a large disclaimer on the front page clarifying (as if this were needed) that the site is not connected in any way with the Church of Scientology. Will this protect the site if the lawyers come calling again? It's debatable. The Church could argue that the new site constitutes "dilution" of their trademark, which means that it does "damage to the trademark's reputation in the market." Balancing this is the First Amendment of course. But it remains to be seen what a judge would say in this particular instance.

Stoller claims that traffic has increased tenfold for his site as a result of the very public controversy, a claim that Alexa numbers would seem to back up. This isn't surprising. But it's doubtful that the Church of Scientology will back down.
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Blogger Glen said...

We're not backing down either - site is up and we're fighting them for it

Glen Stollery

11:48 AM  

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