An author who was stalked and bullied online for her efforts to enforce her copyrights has won a permanent protective order against the perpetrator, Matthew Chan, who is also in the sights of stock photo agencies for thwarting their efforts to enforce photographers’ copyrights. The restraining order reflects an increasingly vitriolic tone and no-holds-barred personal attacks against copyright holders and their attorneys on Chan’s website, extortionletterinfo.com (aka ELI).
A Georgia state court judge issued the restraining order against Chan on February 28, at the request of Linda Ellis of Marietta, Georgia. Ellis writes and markets inspirational poetry, and is the author of several books. As a result of her efforts to protect her copyright by issuing demand letters to individuals and organizations who published her work without her permission, she was subject to attacks by Chan and his followers on the ELI website.
The court said Chan’s actions “placed the petitioner [Linda Ellis] in reasonable fear for [her] safety, because [Chan] contacted [Ellis] (and urged others to contact her) and posted personal information of the petitioner for the purpose of harassing and intimidating [her].”
Victims of ELI’s attacks–including stock photo agencies and attorneys who help them enforce copyright– are cheering, but doing so quietly, for fear of fueling renewed attacks if they speak up. Chan and his attorney say he is being denied his rights of free speech, and that he is the victim of judicial overreach and error.
The judge ordered Chan to remove the offending posts from the ELI website, and to leave Ellis and her immediate family alone–without contact of any type in the future, including online or through social media. Chan risks a charge of aggravated stalking, a felony punishable by fines and imprisonment, if he violates the order.
Ellis sought the restraining order because of the campaign against her that Chan and his followers launched last year. The attacks began after Ellis reportedly sent a $7,500 demand letter to a Seattle auctioneer who had posted one of Ellis’s poems online without permission.
Ellis told her hometown paper, the Marietta Daily Journal in Marietta, Georgia, that Chan and his supporters posted her address and pictures of her house on the ELI website. Then they began insulting her personally on the site. Ellis said she could ignore all of that. “But then he posted a video screaming at me saying I wouldn’t understand anything but brute force,” she told the newspaper. “This was cyber stalking at its worst.”
Fearing for her safety, Ellis finally approached law enforcement officials, and sought the restraining order. She was supported in her efforts by Timothy McCormack, a Seattle attorney who has pursued copyright infringement claims for Getty Images, and who has also been a victim of Chan’s online attacks. (Chan’s crusade against what he calls “copyright trolls” and “extortionists” began several years ago when he received a demand letter from Getty for infringement. He considered the demand excessive for the use in question, and fought with such tenacity that Getty finally dropped the matter).
“In 15 years as an attorney, I have never witnessed such a dangerous and uninhibited pattern of behavior. I believe that Mr. Chan is a danger both to himself and to others. He is a zealot to his ’cause’ and believes he is irreproachable and unstoppable,” McCormack wrote in an affidavit to the Georgia court. “Based on his own words and pattern of escalating behavior that I have personally witnessed, I believe Mr. Chan is likely to follow through on his threats of physical retaliation against Linda Ellis.”
McCormack added that his own property has been vandalized since he became an ELI target, “which I believe to be a direct result or Mr. Chan’s hate and harassment campaign directed against me.” McCormack noted that Chan posts addresses and photos of his targets, as well as photos of their homes. “I believe serious harm is likely if he remains unchecked,” McCormack wrote in the affidavit.
McCormack also filed numerous exhibits with the affidavit, showing examples of what Chan posted on the ELI website forum in his campaign against Ellis.
In a post dated June 11, 2012, for instance, Chan threatened to divulge personal information about Ellis, her brother, and her daughter. “There are people who hate you and looking [sic] to put you into the ground,” Chan wrote in a post to his ELI forum. “My patience is fairly low. It wouldn’t take much to push me over the edge on this.”
Ellis says she was frightened by a post dated June 19, 2012, in which Chan described ELI as his “cult” in an open letter to McCormack. Chan also wrote in that post: “My dazzling, hypnotic, persuasive, and entrancing words and prose are somewhat masterful I must confess. I can convince the most intelligent, self-determined, and self-motivated person to blindly follow any public suggestion I might make.”
Ellis says she asked Chan’s internet service provider to review content associated with her name; as a result, the ISP shut down the ELI website. Angered by that, Chan moved ELI to a new ISP. He then escalated his attacks against Ellis, she says.
On December 10, 2012, Chan announced on the ELI forum that another alleged infringer who had received a demand letter from Ellis had hired ELI to fight a demand for money from Ellis. “Given ELI’s many past successes using unorthodox, lethal, hard-hitting, reputation damaging strategies, [ELI was hired] to take on Team Ellis,” Chan wrote. “If there is collateral damage that goes beyond Linda that spills over to her friends, family, attorneys, and business associates, so be it.”
Chan also wrote in that post, “Some people might get it into their heads to come after me. That could be a big mistake…I absolutely believe in revenge and payback…I am capable of many things. I won’t elaborate…”
Then Chan went on to say, “Marietta [Georgia, where Ellis lives] was my old stomping grounds. I have a video camera. I have access to a lot of financial and real estate records. I know how to track people down….I have a freaky photographer friend from Florida…that [sic] is just aching to visit me in Georgia and join me in a tour of Marietta with a video camera.”
Several days later, he posted to the ELI forum that he was asking ELI’s “client” for expense money to access databases for the purpose of digging up “dirt” on Ellis and her family.
On January 30, 2013, Chan insulted Ellis’s appearance in graphic terms. Then he added, “I am NOT stalking her pitiful ass. I am here on ELI, at my home base, saying what I want to say while not violating any laws….Too fucking bad if her ‘fans’ want to look her up and find my personal write-ups about her…I am carrying through with my promise on payback plain and simple.”
The next day, after some ELI forum members apparently asked Chan to be “professional, focus on the true issues, [be] a better human being, [take] the high road,” Chan responded: “What I will be writing will be mean, malicious, retaliatory, vicious, ugly, distasteful, and get very personal. It will make a LOT of people cringe and that is fine.”
He concluded that post by writing, “For now, I don’t care about Getty, Masterfile, McCormack [Getty’s outside counsel], or any other copyright extortionists. They get a free pass. This shitbag named Linda Ellis and her despicable team, is what I am focused on.”
On February 9, he announced on the forum that he had visited Marietta, Georgia. “I’m not going to say where exactly in Marietta I was at but let’s just say I was in East Cobb very close to a Kroger grocery store.”
Ellis told the Marietta Daily Journal, “In court, the paper [Chan] was holding shook so much it was like there was a ceiling fan,” Ellis said. “He was nervous seeing me face-to-face. His weapon is his keyboard.”
Chan sent several lengthy e-mails to PDN defending his actions, and arguing that the court order against him was an injustice. He said he began complying with the court order immediately by removing posts on the ELI website about Ellis.
He argued that a permanent protective order that bars him from writing about Linda Ellis infringes his right of free speech.
“Having a lifetime PPO [Permanent Protective Order] against someone who has never met, phoned, emailed, text-messaged, voicemailed, FAXED, or visited the plaintiff [Ellis] is outrageous to me,” he wrote.
His attorney, Oscar Michelen, says: “Matt was not charged with being boorish or rude or hurtful. He was not even charged with threatening Ms. Ellis. He was charged with stalking her. Even though he never contacted her or called her or emailed her.”
Chan added, “I didn’t tell anyone to do anything directly or indirectly. I bluster and bloviate on my own forums, there is no denying that,” he wrote. “Having interviewed me, you know I do get worked up. But seriously, have I ever once come close to discussing anything violent, dangerous, and the like? NO. And that isn’t the case now.
“No question about it, it was definitely stupid for me to take up someone’s case and wrote [sic] some of what I wrote. It certainly doesn’t paint me in a flattering light and I’m not proud of it.” He said that out of context of the hundreds of posts he has made to ELI, the handful of posts about Linda Ellis paint a distorted picture of him.
He went on to justify his actions by alleging that Ellis “regularly issues $7,500 extortion letters to dental/medical centers, churches, charities, non-profits, etc. for mistakenly printing her poem. But that information is now buried. Plaintiff has been engaged in intimidation for many more years than ELI has even been in existence? So who is truly the bully here?”
Chan says he’d like to appeal the protective order, but may not have the resources to do so.
Michelen, adds, “If we do appeal it will be because the order stifles free speech in general and future speech on ELI specifically.”
Meanwhile, McCormack–the Getty attorney–says he will continue to pursue Chan, ELI attorney Oscar Michelen and ELI. For McCormack, the fight is personal: Besides attacking McCormack for his copyright enforcement efforts, ELI members have posted degrading and homophobic images of McCormack, and used SEO strategies to ensure those images appear high in any search results of his name. ELI has also attacked one of his female paralegals repeatedly.
“I don’t think people understood the depth of the vulgarity that have been done to Linda Ellis, my staff, and other people,” McCormack told PDN in a telephone interview. “When they take the law into their own hands, and they brag about it–‘We will do whatever it takes, cross any line’–they use threats and intimidation. That’s not free speech. That’s the issue here, and there will be a day of reckoning.”
In December, McCormack filed a 36-page professional misconduct complaint against Michelen with the New York state bar, alleging violation of state cyberstalking statutes. It included 100 exhibits, mostly screen grabs of posts from the ELI website.
As part owner of the ELI website, “Mr. Mechelen oversees hateful smear campaigns…which are often racist, misogynistic, and homophobic in nature….with the intention of disrupting the legal process and intimidation opposing parties into ceasing pursuit of their claims,” McCormack wrote in the complaint.
But the New York state bar declined to pursue the complaint, saying it wasn’t the proper “first forum” for it. “We are still in the process of discussing forum with the [New York] bar,” McCormack told PDN.
Asked why he hasn’t sued for defamation, libel, or other civil claims, McCormack said, “That might happen.” He adds, “I believe they have not only crossed civil boundaries, but they’re in the realm of criminal violation.”
Asked whether ELI is the subject of any criminal investigations, McCormack said, “I can’t comment about any knowledge I have or don’t have about any investigations.”
Meanwhile, ELI’s enemies are showing themselves capable of nasty, bare-knuckle smear tactics. Another attorney who has been subject to ELI’s attacks for issuing demand letters to infringers on behalf of stock agencies provided PDN with a private investigator’s report on ELI and Chan. It includes names, addresses (past and current), phone numbers, and photographs of Chan and others affiliated with ELI who are considered “hostile threats.” The report also lists web sites registered to those individuals. And it includes names and photographs of some of their family members, along with some embarrassing, unverified, and potentially slanderous personal information.
The attorney who sent the report referred questions about who commissioned it to McCormack. He was not immediately available for comment. But one thing is certain: The report is a salvo from ELI’s enemies in what has shaped up to be a very dirty war.
Agencies Step Up Copyright Enforcement as Infringers Fight Back (subscription required)
(Sponsored by Workbook) The Launch of the new Workbook.com Combines the Best User Experience and Access to the Best Talent. As the creative industry has rapidly evolved over the past several years, Workbook and its contributors have continued to keep pace with the latest trends. More photographers now direct live action, illustrators increasingly explore animation,... More ›
California-based Brooks Institute and Massachusetts-based Hallmark Institute of Photography have cancelled classes for the fall and announced plans to close down. The two schools, both private for-profit visual arts colleges, have struggled over the past decade with declining enrollments, financial stress, and management shake-ups. Administrators are also blaming new regulations regarding for-profit schools. “[R]ecent changes... More ›
When we were researching our story “What Lawyers See When They Look at Editorial Photography Contracts,” which appeared in the June issue of PDN, we asked photographers to tell us about editorial contracts they feel are unfair to photographers. We received a copy of a Condé Nast contract sent to a photographer in 2013 as... More ›