Before Operation in Our Sites, there was htmlComics.

Though the US Government’s seizure of over 100 domain names as property facilitating the commission of copyright infringement over the past year has received a lot of attention, the story of htmlComics has mostly stayed out of the limelight (except within the comics community).

The case of htmlComics.com is, as far as I know, the first time a domain name has been forfeited under 18 USC § 2323(a) as property “used, or intended to be used, in any manner or part to commit or facilitate the commission of” criminal copyright infringement.1 For this reason, it’s worth taking another look at — although the circumstances are very different than the forfeiture case against the Rojadirecta domain names (the only domain name seized during Operation in Our Sites that has been disputed so far).

It’s just like a library

A man by the name of Gregory Hart (no relation) registered the htmlcomics.com domain in December 2008, and shortly after began creating a large library of digitized comic books. The site soon grew to include hundreds of thousands of complete copies of comics, attracting thousands of visitors and plenty of speculation over its legality.

Several online postings by Hart shed some light on his motivations for creating the site. In one, he says he’s never “read even one entire comic book!!!!!!!” and created the site as a sort of proof of concept of a large-scale digitized library project. In another, he asks about legal issues relating to the site, operating under the assumption that his site is no different from any public library.

htmlComics.com quickly attracted the attention of most major comic book publishers. Some sent cease and desist letters, but soon, a consortium of publishers — including Marvel Comics, DC Comics, Dark Horse Comics, Bongo Comics, Archie Comics, Conan Properties Int’l LLC, Mirage Studios Inc., and United Media — enlisted the aid of the FBI.

The Feds Get Involved

The FBI began an investigation of the site and Hart in July 2009. On April 20th, 2010, agents executed a search warrant on Hart’s residence, seizing various paper records and computer equipment. On May 27th, the FBI filed a complaint for forfeiture of the htmlComics.com domain name (along with five related domain names). A warrant for the seizure of the domain names was made the same day.

Like the forfeiture complaints filed against the domain names seized during Operation in Our Sites,2 the htmlcomics.com complaint alleges that the domain name is subject to forfeiture under 18 USC § 2323(a) because it is property used to facilitate the commission of criminal copyright infringement.

Hart filed a claim as an owner of the domain names and represented himself in the forfeiture proceedings. He filed his answer to the complaint on June 29th, along with several counterclaims against the government. The answer denied any wrongdoing. Hart repeated his assertion that the site was just like any public library:

The presentation of htmlComics.com was not in violation of U.S. Statutory laws. If it is, then so too is every private library within an apartment community, libraries within private clubs, every schoolhouse library, every prison library, and every military base library.

Hart counterclaimed for violations of the First Amendment, Fourth Amendment, Privacy Protection Act (42 USC § 2000AA), and trespass to chattels.

The US moved to dismiss the counterclaims, arguing that they were a “legal nullity” — the defendant in an in rem proceeding is the property, not the claimant, and any claim the claimant may have against the government must be brought in a separate action. As for the constitutional counterclaims, the US further argued that

the only conceivable basis for the Court’s subject matter jurisdiction is Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), under which an individual may bring a cause of action “against a federal agent who, while acting under the color of federal law, has violated the constitutional rights of [the] individual. Bivens actions are brought directly under the Constitution, but damages can be obtained only when (1) the plaintiff has no alternative means of obtaining redress, and (2) no “special factors counseling hesitation” are present. In essence, a plaintiff must meet heightened pleading requirements to even pursue a claim under Bivens. Under this standard, the Claimant’s First and Fourth Amendment counterclaims are grossly deficient and must be dismissed.

The court granted the motion to dismiss Hart’s counterclaims. The only success Hart would have came early on, when the court dismissed the claim against one of the six domain names because, unlike the others, it pointed to a blank page.

By January 2011, the US and Hart reached a pretrial settlement agreement, where Hart agreed the remaining five domain names were subject to forfeiture and released any future claims against the US and the FBI. The court entered the final judgment of forfeiture on February 2, 2011.

htmlComics, Operation in Our Sites, and the PROTECT IP Act

The differences between this case and Operation in Our Sites are obvious. This was a singular action, investigated by the FBI, against a specific site while Operation in Our Sites constituted a broader, coordinated enforcement effort by ICE. htmlComics.com hosted infringing content on its own servers while many of the domains seized by ICE, including Rojadirecta, did not host the content themselves — though, under the language of the forfeiture statute, this is not as relevant a distinction as some critics of the operation make it out to be.

It’s the similarities, however, that I find interesting. Both involve the use of 18 USC § 2323 to forfeit the domain names of websites aiding piracy. Both htmlComics and Rojadirecta raised First Amendment arguments against the seizures — though not too much should be read into the failure of the argument in htmlComics since it flopped procedurally, and the outcome of Rojadirecta’s arguments are still pending. This case especially highlights the advantage of the forfeiture provision, added by the PRO-IP Act in 2008 — it gives the federal law enforcement agencies more options to carefully craft efforts to reduce online piracy. The FBI could have brought criminal charges against Hart himself or the comic book publishers could have sued Hart and his company in civil court. Instead, it proceeded in rem against the offending site itself, which is probably the most direct route. In the same way, ICE has targeted the domain names of rogue sites through the forfeiture process, making it more difficult for them to operate and profit.

Congress is back in session this week, and work on the proposed PROTECT IP Act is expected to begin shortly. The bill will give the US an additional option to use against pirate sites. Through a process similar to the in rem forfeiture proceedings used in htmlComics and Operation in Our Sites, the Attorney General will be able to request court orders against the often unwitting partners of pirate sites — advertising and financial service providers. This process is especially useful for taking the profit out of pirate sites where the operators are, unlike Hart and htmlComics, unknown or operating overseas.

Footnotes

  1. I’ve uploaded some of the court filings for this case to Scribd. The rest are available through PACER, or at the RECAP archive. []
  2. Along with Rojadirecta, the US has filed a complaint against tvshack.net, movies-link.tv, zml.com, now-movies.com, thepiratecity.org, planetmoviez.com, and filespump.com. []

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5 Comments

  1. “the defendant in an in rem proceeding is the property, not the claimant”

    How can an inanimate object be a “defendant”?
    Since it can’t help in it’s own defense, wouldn’t it be found “incompetent to stand trial”?
    What rights does it have?
    Is it a US Citizen?
    If it IS, legally, a defendant, can it be assigned a pro-bono lawyer (since it obviously can’t pay for one)?
    Can ANY inanimate object be a defendant?

    • How can an inanimate object be a “defendant”?
      It’s a legal fiction, sort of like saying a corporation is a “person”. This isn’t a new idea: “The thing is here primarily considered as the offender, or rather the offence is attached primarily to the thing,” The Palmyra, Supreme Court, 1827.

      Since it can’t help in it’s own defense, wouldn’t it be found “incompetent to stand trial”?
      What rights does it have?

      Property doesn’t have rights, but property claimants certainly do — all the rights accorded to them by the Constitution and any additional ones created by statute.

      Is it a US Citizen?
      Obviously not. But the state and courts have jurisdiction over property within their geographical borders.

      If it IS, legally, a defendant, can it be assigned a pro-bono lawyer (since it obviously can’t pay for one)?

      No, since the right to have counsel appointed when you can’t afford it only applies to criminal proceedings, and civil forfeiture proceedings, as the name suggests, are civil in nature. But under CAFRA, property claimants in federal civil forfeiture proceedings can have a court appointed attorney if the property being forfeited is real estate.

      Can ANY inanimate object be a defendant?

      Pretty much. US v. Elderberry juice concentrate. US v. 910 cases, more or less, of peanuts.

  2. Terri said: “Property doesn’t have rights, but property claimants certainly do — all the rights accorded to them by the Constitution and any additional ones created by statute.”

    But the government specifically stated “the defendant in an in rem proceeding is the property, not the claimant” to avoid the site owner’s claim…which seemingly would negate what you said, especially under the 4th Amendment (Illegal search and seizure).

    My head hurts… ;-(

    • But the government specifically stated “the defendant in an in rem proceeding is the property, not the claimant” to avoid the site owner’s claim…which seemingly would negate what you said, especially under the 4th Amendment (Illegal search and seizure).

      The guy can bring those claims in a different proceeding in his own name, but he just can’t bring them up here because it’s the property (and not him) as the defendant.

  3. This case especially highlights the advantage of the forfeiture provision, added by the PRO-IP Act in 2008 — it gives the federal law enforcement agencies more options to carefully craft efforts to reduce online piracy. The FBI could have brought criminal charges against Hart himself or the comic book publishers could have sued Hart and his company in civil court. Instead, it proceeded in rem against the offending site itself, which is probably the most direct route. In the same way, ICE has targeted the domain names of rogue sites through the forfeiture process, making it more difficult for them to operate and profit.

    He is super lucky they didn’t arrest him. This is kind of a weird way to fight crime though, especially when the alleged criminal is in the U.S. and they know where to find him. Rather than get an arrest warrant and go after the criminal, they got a seizure warrant and went after the instrumentality. I imagine that comports with due process, but it seems unsporting to me.

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