TheLiberal.ie: Copyright infringements and Sock Puppets

This article first appeared in Village magazine, April 2017 edition

Ardee District Court was delayed. The courtroom was packed, as it often is on a Monday morning after a busy weekend, with fresh arrests to be processed. Solicitors shuffled papers, Guards gathered in twos and threes in quiet conversations, and towards the back, concerned families stood around, anxiously glancing at the clocks. Eventually the word filtered out. Someone had got their wires crossed, and two judges had shown up, which was one too many. Eventually they’d get the confusion sorted, and the day’s business could begin.

In the press box, two reporters sent by the Irish Times and the Irish Independent waited, along with a local journalist from the Dundalk Democrat. Outside the building, two photographers, also sent by the nationals, loitered with bored intent, swapping anecdotes and stamping their feet against the cold.

Sock puppet
Image via Morguefile.com

Eventually, the confusion over the double-booking was sorted out, and Marie Keane tok her seat on the bench to hear the day’s business. The court was cleared briefly while the judge heard a handful of family law cases, bail releases were agreed, ongoing cases were processed and assigned future dates for as lawyers gave optimistic estimates of how long the hearings would take.

Eventually, the cases which have attracted national attention are called. Leo Sherlock, with an address in Ardee Road, Collon, Co Louth, trading as ”The Liberal” and “TheLiberal.ie”, is being sued separately by CCC Nuacht Teoranta, a courts reporting news service, and Independent Newspapers (Ireland) Ltd, both of whom accuse him of multiple copyright infringement. This was the second time his case came up before the court. The case is being defended by Sherlock, but unfortunately for the photographers waiting outside, he did not make a personal appearance.

TheLiberal.ie, according to court papers filed by CCC Nuacht, is seeking compensation for four court reports which appeared on TheLiberal.ie on various dates in 2015 and 2016. Independent Newspapers is charging that there were multiple infroingements of copyright, citing five photographs which appeared on TheLiberal.ie website between 2014 and 2016.

Copyright law may be somewhat obscure, but it has teeth. For each offence, Sherlock could be facing a fine of up to €15,000, in addition to legal costs, under the provisions of the Copyright and Related Rights Act 2000.

At the Ardee hearing on 13 March, Independent Newspapers indicated that the five photographs identified in their claim notice were not the only ones on Sherlock’s website they had issue with, and that there had been further alleged copyright breaches since the action was filed.

Paul Meagher, the solicitor for Independent Newspapers, told Judge Marie Keane that Sherlock had entered a defence since a previous appearance before the court in February. No details of this defence were given in open court.

The lawyers for the two news organisations told the judge they were essentially making “the exact same case”, and the two cases could run in parallel. Independent Newspapers planned to call three witnesses, but this could be shortened through affadavits.

Having listened to the lawyers, Judge Keane adjourned the case for a month. Little is likely to happen at the April hearing, but if they’re lucky, the lawyers may get a date for a full hearing of the case before the summer.

***

Meanwhile, as Sherlock’s website shows a remarkable ability to generate shareable content and thus generate advertising revenues, its operations have come under scrutiny on Twitter, particularly among the media savvy. Initial gripes about competitions run by the website on Facebook, apparently in violation of the social network’s terms of reference, eventually led to a 38 page dossier on the site produced mid-March by an anonymous Twitter user identified only as @TheLiberal_x (The Liberal Exposed).

TheLiberal.ie runs regular competitions in a bid to increase its number of Facebook “Likes” (currently over 400,000), and Twitter followers (17,900), offering prizes from iPads to shopping vouchers. These efforts pay off in over one million page impressions per week to the website, according to Google Adwords.

The dossier author contacted several retailers named as prize sponsors by TheLiberal.ie. The companies involved said they had no connection with the website. In addition, the dossier presents convincing evidence that several prizewinners are “sock puppets”, fictitious accounts created by Sherlock, some of which have changed names over time.

This tallies with the results of an investigation by DublinInquirer into another site, Pretty.ie, also set up by Sherlock. The Inquirer was unable to reach any prizewinners on that site.

In addition to “Liking” photos posted by Sherlock, these prizewinning accounts also show up in online debates to “vehemently defend TheLiberal.ie whenever it comes under criticism.”

On March 28, shortly after the Liberal Exposed dossier PDF was published online, TheLiberal.ie deleted over 14,000 Facebook posts. No explanation was given for this action, although the posts were downloaded and archived by the Liberal Exposed before the purge.

Several attempts were made to contact Leo Sherlock for comment about this article, by email, telephone and through his Facebook page. At time of going to print, he has not responded.

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