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Mormon suit against couple alleges copyright infringement of church book

SALT LAKE CITY (BP)–A copyrights infringement case being waged by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints against a Salt Lake City evangelical couple is sending shock waves through cyberspace, triggering debate over individuals’ First Amendment rights to freedom of religion, and turning the spotlight on the secretive nature of the Mormon Church.

Jerald and Sandra Tanner printed excerpts of an unpublished Mormon book on their Lighthouse Ministry’s Internet site, www.utlm.org, last July. The book, which the Tanners obtained from anonymous sources, explains how members can remove their names from LDS church rolls. The church, through its Intellectual Reserves, Inc., subsidiary that holds the rights to its intellectual property, sued in October alleging copyright infringement.

The church also convinced a U.S. district judge to issue a temporary restraining order, a ruling that required the Tanners to remove the pages from their website. However, the Tanners later posted an e-mail message from a reader containing Internet addresses where the entire book — “Church Handbook of Instructions, Book 1, Stake Presidencies and Bishoprics” that deals with church disciplinary procedures — could be read.

The LDS Church, in response, asked the judge to order the Tanners to remove the addresses on the theory they were encouraging others to view and make illegal copies of the handbook pages.

The judge ordered the addresses removed, creating a firestorm on the Internet.

Just about everyone who is concerned about how existing copyright laws may be applied to cyberspace is watching the Utah case more closely, David Sorkin, a professor a The John Marshall Law School in Chicago, told The Salt Lake Tribune.

“The Internet is all about linking [websites together],” Jeffrey Kuester, a copyright lawyer who practices cyberspace law in Atlanta, told the newspaper. If the judge’s ruling stands, “it is going to have a chilling impact on anyone who wants to tell someone else where something can be found on the Web.”

If the judge makes the restrictions against posting the Internet addresses permanent, website operators may eventually object to providing links to other sites for fear they may be contributing to copyright violations, Keuster said.

“The question becomes, ‘Are you linking to the owner of the information or just a website where it is posted?'” he said.

However, Mormon Church attorney Berne Broadbent told The Tribune a distinction could be made between someone merely providing a link to another website and providing an address to a site known to contain copyright violations, he noted.

The Tanners’ Salt Lake City attorney, Brian Barnard, has appealed the judge’s preliminary injunction banning his clients from displaying the Internet addresses on their website to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

In addition, a nonprofit group that studies cyberspace freedom of expression issues, The Electronic Frontier Foundation, said it would file its own brief with the court expressing its reservations about the restriction.

“It has never been illegal for someone to say, ‘Go down to Joe’s warehouse. He has pirated CDs down there,'” Robin Cross, staff attorney for the San Francisco-based foundation, told The Salt Lake Tribune. “Their restrictions represent a huge leap [in the law].”

Meanwhile, Barnard has asked the U.S. district judge in Utah to dismiss the original copyright infringement case against the Tanners. A ruling is expected any time.

Barnard said the information posted by the Tanners had been circulating on the Internet for six months and that they removed it as soon as they were contacted.

“It is a theological dispute as much as it’s a copyright dispute,” Barnard told Baptist Press. “Because the Tanners have been critics of the LDS Church for some time, I think they are being singled out for this litigation. The New York Times put up URLs with links to the same information as my clients put up. The Salt Lake Tribune published the same URLs and neither The Tribune nor The New York Times is being sued. So it appears this litigation is based more on a theological dispute.”

Sandra Tanner, who was featured in a video explaining Mormon beliefs issued prior to the 1998 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Salt Lake City by the SBC’s North American Mission Board, said Utah Lighthouse Ministry’s website was established to let people know that “the Mormon religion is false, that Joseph Smith is a false prophet, and that they are in danger of jeopardizing their eternal welfare.”

“In other churches you would have been given a manual when you joined that would have laid out their church discipline policies,” she said. “But in Mormonism, you are not given a church handbook that explains their discipline processes and, in fact, they are kept secret from you.

“In the Mormon Church they never drop you from the rolls no matter how inactive you have been. I have people writing us all the time, asking what they have to do to get these people [the LDS] off their backs.”

Phil Roberts, vice president for strategic city strategy for the SBC’s North American Mission Board and author of “Mormonism Unmasked,” called the LDS “America’s largest secretive organization.”

“They do not issue any financial reports or internal information,” Roberts said. “Attendees cannot discuss the temple ceremony outside the temple. At various points, they are extremely clandestine. It would be an odd religion that said, ‘You cannot leave.’ The LDS is very concerned about statistics and to show positive growth.”

The issue of removing one’s name from the membership rolls of the LDS Church became a public relations problem last year for the church, which claims 11 million members, as a result of a letter-writing campaign to get people to resign from the church. The campaign included several University of Utah students and led to a demonstration to highlight the issue at the LDS Church’s general conference last September.

People who participated in the letter-writing campaign claim their letters resulted in harassing phone calls from clergy and letters inviting them to participate in church court concerning their membership status in the LDS Church.

“This type of response to a letter from a member of a church asking to be removed from a church’s membership rolls is clearly an unconstitutional attack on the freedom of religious rights of those who wrote the letters,” editorialized William Tibbits, a columnist in the University of Utah independent student newspaper, The Daily Utah Chronicle.

“Freedom of religion, like all rights protected in the Bill of Rights, is a right for individuals, not organizations,” Tibbits wrote. “This means that freedom of religion exists not for churches but for the members of those churches. In the context of the LDS Church, this means that people who wish to leave the LDS Church should be able to write a letter stating that wish and be left alone.”

Tibbits believes the copyright lawsuit against the Tanners was filed because the LDS Church feels that the information in the book is secret information that can be used against them by outsiders wanting to leave the church or by people like the Tanners willing to help people leave.

“The LDS Church should recognize that using the courts in this way will only make it look bad, and drop the case,” Tibbits wrote.

Sandra Tanner said the LDS Church thought it was only getting involved in a simple copyright lawsuit case, but now finds itself between a rock and a hard place.

“The Mormon Church is so concerned about PR, that I can’t imagine them wanting to be involved in a lawsuit that would get everyone on the Internet mad at them.”

The lawsuit has prompted at least one unexpected result: “We’ve tripled the number of people coming to our website, and it’s put us in contact with a lot of marginal Mormons who might not have contacted us otherwise,” Tanner said.

    About the Author

  • Don Hinkle