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CUBBY, INC. v. COMPUSERVE INC.

October 29, 1991

CUBBY, INC., A CORPORATION D/B/A SKUTTLEBUT, AND ROBERT G. BLANCHARD, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
COMPUSERVE INC., D/B/A RUMORVILLE, AND DON FITZPATRICK, INDIVIDUALLY, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Leisure, District Judge:

  ORDER AND OPINION

This is a diversity action for libel, business disparagement, and unfair competition, based on allegedly defamatory statements made in a publication carried on a computerized database. Defendant CompuServe Inc. ("CompuServe") has moved for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For the reasons stated below, CompuServe's motion is granted in its entirety.

Background

CompuServe develops and provides computer-related products and services, including CompuServe Information Service ("CIS"), an on-line general information service or "electronic library" that subscribers may access from a personal computer or terminal. Subscribers to CIS pay a membership fee and online time usage fees, in return for which they have access to the thousands of information sources available on CIS. Subscribers may also obtain access to over 150 special interest "forums," which are comprised of electronic bulletin boards, interactive online conferences, and topical databases.

One forum available is the Journalism Forum, which focuses on the journalism industry. Cameron Communications, Inc. ("CCI"), which is independent of CompuServe, has contracted to "manage, review, create, delete, edit and otherwise control the contents" of the Journalism Forum "in accordance with editorial and technical standards and conventions of style as established by CompuServe." Affidavit of Jim Cameron, sworn to on April 4, 1991 ("Cameron Aff."), Exhibit A.

One publication available as part of the Journalism Forum is Rumorville USA ("Rumorville"), a daily newsletter that provides reports about broadcast journalism and journalists. Rumorville is published by Don Fitzpatrick Associates of San Francisco ("DFA"), which is headed by defendant Don Fitzpatrick. CompuServe has no employment, contractual, or other direct relationship with either DFA or Fitzpatrick; DFA provides Rumorville to the Journalism Forum under a contract with CCI. The contract between CCI and DFA provides that DFA "accepts total responsibility for the contents" of Rumorville. Cameron Aff., Exhibit B. The contract also requires CCI to limit access to Rumorville to those CIS subscribers who have previously made membership arrangements directly with DFA.

CompuServe has no opportunity to review Rumorville's contents before DFA uploads it into CompuServe's computer banks, from which it is immediately available to approved CIS subscribers. CompuServe receives no part of any fees that DFA charges for access to Rumorville, nor does CompuServe compensate DFA for providing Rumorville to the Journalism Forum; the compensation CompuServe receives for making Rumorville available to its subscribers is the standard online time usage and membership fees charged to all CIS subscribers, regardless of the information services they use. CompuServe maintains that, before this action was filed, it had no notice of any complaints about the contents of the Rumorville publication or about DFA.

In 1990, plaintiffs Cubby, Inc. ("Cubby") and Robert Blanchard ("Blanchard") (collectively, "plaintiffs") developed Skuttlebut, a computer database designed to publish and distribute electronically news and gossip in the television news and radio industries. Plaintiffs intended to compete with Rumorville; subscribers gained access to Skuttlebut through their personal computers after completing subscription agreements with plaintiffs.

Plaintiffs claim that, on separate occasions in April 1990, Rumorville published false and defamatory statements relating to Skuttlebut and Blanchard, and that CompuServe carried these statements as part of the Journalism Forum. The allegedly defamatory remarks included a suggestion that individuals at Skuttlebut gained access to information first published by Rumorville "through some back door"; a statement that Blanchard was "bounced" from his previous employer, WABC; and a description of Skuttlebut as a "new start-up scam." Affidavit of Robert G. Blanchard, sworn to on July 11, 1991 ("Blanchard Aff."), ¶¶ 5-9.

Plaintiffs have asserted claims against CompuServe and Fitzpatrick under New York law for libel of Blanchard, business disparagement of Skuttlebut, and unfair competition as to Skuttlebut, based largely upon the allegedly defamatory statements contained in Rumorville. CompuServe has moved, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56, for summary judgment on all claims against it. CompuServe does not dispute, solely for the purposes of this motion, that the statements relating to Skuttlebut and Blanchard were defamatory; rather, it argues that it acted as a distributor, and not a publisher, of the statements, and cannot be held liable for the statements because it did not know and had no reason to know of the statements. Plaintiffs oppose CompuServe's motion for summary judgment, claiming that genuine issues of material fact exist and that little in the way of discovery has been undertaken thus far.

Discussion

I. Standard for Summary Judgment

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c) provides that summary judgment "shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2552, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2509, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). "Summary judgment is appropriate if, `after drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of the party against whom summary judgment is sought, no reasonable trier of fact could find in favor of the non-moving party.'" United States v. All Right, Title & Interest in Real Property, 901 F.2d 288, 290 (2d Cir. 1990) (quoting Murray v. National Broadcasting Co., 844 F.2d 988, 992 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 488 U.S. 955, 109 S.Ct. 391, 102 L.Ed.2d 380 (1988)).

The substantive law governing the case will identify those facts that are material, and "[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2510, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986); Herbert Construction Co. v. Continental Insurance Co., 931 F.2d 989, 993 (2d Cir. 1991). "[T]he judge's function is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there does indeed exist a genuine issue for trial." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249, 106 S.Ct. at 2511; see also R.C. Bigelow, Inc. v. Unilever N.V., 867 F.2d 102, 107 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 493 U.S. 815, 110 S.Ct. 64, 107 L.Ed.2d 31 (1989). The party seeking summary judgment "bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion," ...


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