A few people have asked my opinion on the Quentin Tarantino v. Gawker lawsuit and while I've been happy to lament it with friends and family, I hesitated to weigh in here because I wanted some time to get my thoughts in order. The situation, while comical, says something deeply unflattering about both Tarantino and Gawker, and it brings to light a previously unknown area of law that could have an impact that reverberates through the entertainment and media spheres for a long time. That time to think was also necessary to separate the wheat from the chaff - people have largely chosen sides based on knee-jerk reaction, rather than a thoughtful analysis of the facts (if you like Tarantino's films, Gawker is obviously the devil. If you dislike Tarantino's films, then he's a cry baby who may have instigated this whole fight). Now that I've had some time to process the situation, here's my take:
Whoever wins, we all lose.
For those not in the know, Tarantino sent an early draft of his new script, The Hateful Eight, to several actors he was considering for roles in the film. One of those actors (most likely Bruce Dern of Nebraska fame) gave the script to his agent. Somehow, the script leaked out of the agency and wound up on a website where it could be downloaded and shared by anyone. Angered by the leak, Tarantino spoke to Deadline to discuss how he was so pissed at the situation, he shelved the script completely and would make another film instead. A few days later, Gawker printed a story with the headline Here is the Leaked Quentin Tarantino Hateful Eight Script which contained a link to anonfiles, the website that was hosting the leaked script. Tarantino lost his shit and sued Gawker, claiming that it was liable for "contributory copyright infringement." You can find the complaint here, and you can read Gawker's response to the suit here.
Unlike traditional copyright infringement, contributory copyright infringement is a really muddy area of law, with very little case-law and precedent to accurately predict how a court would rule on this issue. Contributory infringement occurs when someone knowingly causes, induces, or materially contributes to copyright infringement. In this case, Gawker didn't host the script on its own servers, so it can't be liable for direct infringement. But because it linked to anonfiles and essentially told its audience, "here's where you can get it," Tarantino argues that it knowingly caused the infringement to be much worse than it otherwise would have been.
So did Gawker infringe Tarantino's script through contribution? That determination will rest on a lot of factors such as: the intent of the article's author and publisher, the likelihood of readers clicking through to the script, and the actual amount of traffic Gawker is responsible for sending to anonfiles. I honestly don't know how this will shake out, but here's what I do know... whichever way a court rules in this case, it sets a dangerous precedent for artists and web masters alike.
If Tarantino loses, it softens the rights of individual artists to protect their work from prying eyes. It allows websites to purposely drive traffic towards wrongfully obtained work without taking any of the blame for making the infringement worse. On the flip side, if Gawker loses, website owners will become responsible for content they don't host. No matter how you cut it, it creates a slippery slope that could negatively impact a lot of people, especially when you consider the fact that Tarantino filed his complaint in a California Federal District Court. Like New York, the California federal courts are extremely influential, and case-law coming out of those courts can set the agenda for the rest of the country.
To make matters worse, neither Tarantino nor Gawker have particularly good arguments. In the past, Tarantino has openly praised the leaking of his scripts, and his bluster is what made this story news to begin with (if he had handled it privately or through his lawyers, the script might never have leaked as quickly and as widely as it did). Gawker argues that because it's a news website, posting the link was newsworthy and thus, its actions are protected by fair use. But would a real news agency like CNN or BBC post the link? I doubt it. I also doubt that posting a link to an infringed script was the kind of thing the writers of our copyright laws envisioned when they came up with fair use.
I pray that the parties settle before getting to trial because this is not the case to determine such a deeply important issue.