Last week we filed a class action complaint on behalf of the patients of a New York dentist, Stacy Makhnevich, over a form agreement that she imposes on all new patients to try to suppress any online comments on her work that she finds disagreeable. In the form, Makhnevich promises not to evade HIPAA’s patient privacy protection in return for patients’ commitment not to disparage her, not to post any comments about her publicly; if the patient writes anything about the dentist, the patient assigns the copyright in those comments to Makhnevich. Relying on the form, Makhnevich sent one of her patients invoices purporting to bill him a daily hundred-dollar fine for having posted comments about her on Internet review web sites.
The copyright assignment aspect of the agreement is especially dastardly. It is intended to enable the dentist to send a DMCA takedown notice to the host of any web site where the criticism is posted. Because the DMCA protects site hosts from liability for copyright infringement, but only if they act expeditiously to remove infringing material once they receive notice of its presence on their servers, hosts generally respond like Pavlov’s dog to such notices. In theory, copyright could be asserted regardless of whether a comment is true or false, and regardless of whether it is an opinion that is constitutionally protected from libel claims; copyright can also be used as a basis for seeking awards of statutory damages even if there are no real damages.