Hacking a Foreign Lawsuit: Project Gutenberg's Experience, and What It Means for You

What happens when your organization is based in the United States and is brought to court in another country for copyright infringement? This is the story of when this happened to Project Gutenberg, a free online library founded in 1971. The lawsuit was brought by a German publishing company for 18 eBooks in the Project Gutenberg collection. The books were still copyrighted in Germany, but had been in the public domain in the United States for decades.

Project Gutenberg fought the lawsuit in the German court system - and lost. During the course of events from the initial lawsuit in late 2014 until 2020, a lot was learned about jurisdiction in U.S. courts, extraterritoriality, international copyright law, enforceability of foreign money judgments, and differences between a civil law system (Germany) and a common law system (U.S.).

Project Gutenberg brought a hacker perspective to the lawsuit. They looked beyond, to the broader social context. They corresponded with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and others who had experiences with foreign courts. They were not content to let the lawyers battle it out, and rejected their suggestions that Project Gutenberg simply remove the books and pay some fines. The case has been lost in the German courts, including two appeals, yet Project Gutenberg has not removed the 18 eBooks. Greg will share the latest news and highlight how what was learned is of interest to other U.S.-based organizations facing non-U.S. copyright issues.