In Los Angeles and San Diego, Is Discovery of an Anonymous Internet Poster’s Identity for Potential Libel Protected by California’s Constitution?

In an action for copyright infringement of music recordings, an anonymous online poster asserted, through an online music site, the defendant routinely uploaded music to its servers, where it was stored and sold to third party users, and remained despite artists or music labels complaining of infringement.

The defendant subpoenaed the online music site for the name of the anonymous poster. The site declined the subpoena. The defendant responded the site had no basis for refusing a lawful subpoena — on the grounds the First Amendment provides no protection for false and defamatory anonymous speech. The music review site insisted the name of the poster was immaterial to the copyright action because it was not reasonably calculated to lead to admissible evidence germane to the copyright action.

Rejecting the First Amendment argument, the court ruled internet anonymity is protected under Article 1, Section 1 of California’s Constitution. The court reasoned the anonymous commenter’s privacy interest outweighed the defendant’s need to discover the identity of the poster – for the underlying copyright suit. The ruling also noted an anonymous poster who does nothing more than comment on an ongoing public dispute (in an obscure forum, the court added…interestingly), may remain anonymous.

This case should be narrowly construed. Under the California Civil Discovery Act, the poster’s identity was not important to the outcome of the copyright claims, and therefore not reasonably calculated to lead to admissible evidence.

Key aspects of this area of law hark back to Thomas Paine and his little anonymous revolutionary pamphlet, Common Sense.