WordPress and the Law(suit) – Automattic’s Response to Legal Threats

I was honored by the invite to give a talk at the Post Status Publish conference last Thursday. Thanks again to Krogsgard for the invitation – it was a great event, that I hope was not bogged down too much by a late afternoon discussion of legal issues.

My original topic was “WordPress + the Law”, but I changed the title slightly to “WordPress + the Law(suit)”: I used some of the many lawsuits we see against Automattic as examples of the legal issues that hosts, users, developers working with WordPress might see.

At the beginning of my talk, I laid out three general principals for dealing with legal threats that we follow at Automattic. Now doing this short follow up post to flesh out those principles a bit more, since a few people asked about them after the talk.

Automattic’s Approach to Legal Threats

Cut Through the Noise, Don’t be Intimidated. We receive a lot of legal threats. Some of them become actual lawsuits, but the vast majority do not. Most legal complaints relate to content that we host, that someone has a problem with. We steadfastly defend our users’ rights, though we do remove things that are truly harmful or not allowed under our user guidelines. Just because a lawyer, or someone who’s willing to invest in hiring one, says that a website should come down does not mean that we automatically do what they say. In many cases, the louder the complaint, the more a site needs to stay up. This is very true in whistleblower situations. TLDR: don’t be intimidated by a lawyer threat letter, do your research, stand your ground.

Side note: when threats do come in, there’s apparently a rule you learn in lawyer school that says you have to print out the entire contents of the blog you’re complaining about, and attach it to your complaint. For some older sites, the print out can get pretty big. This is a lawsuit threat we received from India, that came delivered in a box. By our standard metric, it measured a 0.67 PBR:


Transparency. We try to provide as much information as possible about the government legal threats we receive, and our guidelines for responding. Check out our Transparency Report, and our Legal Guidelines. I think all companies, hosts especially, should produce these kinds of reports, so users know the volume and kind of government demands a host receives, and how they respond. Individually, this information gives users of a platform comfort that their host has their back. In the aggregate, this data really informs the policy debate about government surveillance and censorship.

A Level Playing Field. A golden rule for us is to, at minimum, make the playing field level between our users and those who might have legal complaints about their sites. If there’s a legitimate complaint, we will of course take action – but more often than not, we see deep pocketed platintiffs and big companies make idle threats. On many platforms, they get what they want – the removal of a site or post they don’t like, only because they can bang the table louder than a small individual publisher. We don’t let that happen on WordPress.com. Pushing back on abuse, giving users full transparency about complaints, and being as transparent as possible when we see abuse helps to make it a fair fight for those who put their trust in us as host. Take a look at our Hall of Shame for some of the worst examples of abuse. As our transparency report indicates, copyright and trademark complaints are two fertile grounds for shenanigans. We reject a very high percentage of the complaints we see in this area. I’ve written before about how internet platforms should do more in this area, specifically standing up for users’ fair use rights.

About the Author

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General Counsel @ Automattic




Agreed, but to take a contrarian viewpoint, I find it slightly disconcerting the way content aggregators(like WordPress) use terms and conditions and user guidelines as a subtle way to censor certain types of content and speech. I understand they want to create a safe space for their users by not allowing hate speech, etc. but if you really believe in freedom of speech you have to accept that a lot of the time you aren’t going to like what you hear.

> On many platforms, they get what they want – the removal of a site or post they don’t like, only because they can bang the table louder than a small individual publisher. We don’t let that happen on WordPress.com.

Any institution without strong legal foundation will fail. It is very easy to start any project, but to manage and protect a successful project is a very serious task. Thanks to the management of WordPress for protecting their clients, customers or users.

This was really interesting to read. It reminds me of when PirateBay were receiving a lot of legal letters and then posted each one on their website for users to read. If they were meant to intimidate, they really had the opposite effect. Interesting!

I suspect if they came after my blog and had to print it out the pile of paper would be much larger than the one in the photo. Nine years and almost 3,000 posts. I’ve often wished WordPress would add a total word count for all our published blogs. I’d like to know how many novels I might have written by now. Anyway, thanks for backing us up.

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[…] A common issue is around “copyright infringement”. A famous singer once sued for copyright infringement because a blogger was talking about them, and the singer had trademarked her name. These sorts of issues can be addressed by Automattic’s legal team before it even gets to the blogger or user. For further reading, Paul neatly summarised his talk in this blog post. […]

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