California Supreme Court Rules in DeCSS-posting Case

The California Supreme Court ruled today that trade secret laws can trump first amendment protections, overturning a previous Court of Appeals ruling. The case involves an injunction against Andrew Bunner, a San Francisco man who posted the DeCSS DVD encryption-crack code on his Web site. The injunction, which required Bunner to remove the code, was thrown out by the Court of Appeals on First Amendment grounds. The decision is quite narrow, essentially saying “the First Amendment does not categorically prohibit preliminary injunctions to enjoin the publication of trade secrets” and sends the case back to the Court of Appeals to re-examine the facts of the case.

I’ve read the decision, but rather than subject you to my legal ignorance I’ll defer to people in the know. First, Eugene Volokh blogs some legal concerns about the decision, saying that the court failed to explain how it determines that some speech is a matter of “private concern” (which gets less protection than something of public concern) and why it’s proper for the court to make this decision. He also questions their application of case law, especially as it relates to whether there were alternative channels to express the same speech (Justice Moreno makes a similar point in his concurring opinion).

As to how the case will wind up, Dan Gillmor posts this little gem at his blog:

I’ve had a note from a lawyer involved in the case, Tom Moore of Tomlinson Zisko in Palo Alto. He makes some interesting points. Here’s what he says:

I’m one of Andrew Bunner’s lawyers. While today’s Mercury News Internet article is true as far as it goes, it misses the fun part entirely.

The decision is a triumph of politics over logic. When you read the decision, you can follow the logic: (1) Software implicates the First Amendment; (2) trade secrets law implicates the First Amendment; (3) the proper level of scrutiny is intermediate First Amendment scrutiny; and (4) assuming that everything in the trial court’s order is supported factually, the order survives that level of scrutiny. Then you see where politics comes into play: The next logical step should have been for the Cal. Supreme Court to review the record independently. Instead, the Court sent the case back to the Court of Appeals to review the record to see if the facts were there. It’s not as if the Court could not review the record. Justice Moreno did it and concluded: “the DVD Copy Control Association’s… trade secret claim against Bunner is patently without merit.”

So, the Court did the politically safe thing by dodging the actual facts.

Those of us who work on Mr. Bunner’s behalf are more entertained than disappointed. The Court has given us a lot to work with. Indeed, the more significant decision in this case was the Cal. Supreme Court’s earlier decision, Pavlovich v. Superior Court. In that decision, the Court held that the injunction does not extend into Texas. That means that CSS and DeCSS is a secret in California only. Eventually, the public nature of DeCSS will come to the fore.

The precedents set in this case may be important, but as far as DeCSS is concerned this is all shutting the barn door after the horses have already bolted, caught a steamer and are enjoying their vacation in Tahiti. And I have the t-shirt to prove it.