The Jehovah’s Witnesses have successfully stopped a whistleblowing website from publicizing their propaganda material.
It’s the culmination of a nearly three-month legal battle between the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania (which oversees the Witnesses) and Truth & Transparency (which posted the content).
This case revolved around the annual Convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which typically involves the members of the faith’s “Governing Body” giving speeches to millions of Witnesses worldwide and showing high-quality films highlighting their beliefs. In 2019, 74 videos from that event were leaked online, then posted at FaithLeaks.org. Truth & Transparency — which oversees FaithLeaks and is run by founders Ryan C. McKnight and Ethan G. Dodge — took that material, researched it, and published an investigative piece on the matter.
The Witnesses, however, said they owned the copyright on those 74 “original motion pictures.” This was essentially the equivalent of reposting a Marvel movie on YouTube and saying it’s for the purposes of journalism. But the argument could be made that there was legit news value to reposting what JW believers around the world were being taught.
The Watch Tower Society disagreed. According to their lawsuit, filed in early May,
… McKnight and Dodge personally participated in, and supervised and directed, the infringing acts described above. Indeed, they personally conceived of, and directed and approved all key aspects of, TTF’s infringing activities. They were the moving force behind those infringing acts.
While no specific cost was listed in the lawsuit, the Witnesses wanted costs and attorneys’ fees for “each” video… even the ones with no real content. The lawsuit also said (almost comically) that “Watch Tower has suffered, and will continue to suffer, irreparable injury not fully compensable in monetary damages, and is therefore entitled to an injunction enjoining Defendants from engaging in their infringing activities.”
In other words, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were suffering because… more people might have had a chance to watch their propaganda films? Whatever the case, those videos are now on the Witnesses’ own website, where they can be seen without any kind of criticism or context.
So which side would win? The side claiming copyright infringement or the side citing the newsworthiness of the leaked content?
We won’t find out. Today, Truth & Transparency announced they had settled the case, giving the Witnesses pretty much everything they wanted. The final settlement agreement has not yet been made public, but here are the big takeaways:
- All Watch Tower material will come down from TTF’s websites.
- McKnight and Dodge promise to “never again publish copyrighted material owned by Watch Tower.”
- The two men owe the Witnesses $15,000 in damages.
Truth & Transparency said this in a statement:
The result is absolutely agonizing and has been emotionally, mentally, and physically taxing on us, as it goes against our core values. Additionally, the irony that we have not been able to say anything publicly until now, causing tremendous frustration for our supporters, is not lost on us. We simply were not at liberty to do so while the settlement was being negotiated, which added to the stress and agony of the situation.
So why settle when there was a strong case to be made to publicize this JW content?
McKnight told me it was purely a financial decision. A fundraiser for their lawsuit took in over $13,000, but he said they needed about $40,000 to put up a real legal fight — even to get a motion to dismiss the Witnesses’ lawsuit. Without the full amount, and without a larger legal organization taking on the work pro bono, settling the case became the best (and arguably only) option.McKnight told me most of the money they raised will go to their lawyer. The rest they owe will come from donations they had raised in the past and personal money.
He also added, “At this time we are reevaluating the future of the organization.” That doesn’t mean the website is shutting down, though.
With the lawsuit behind us we are going to resume publishing ASAP we have stories that have been on hold during this ordeal. We are still reevaluating the specifics of the long-term future of the organization at this time, and once we have a clear picture of what that will look like, we will let everyone know.
There’s irony in the idea that a religious organization would work this hard to stop people from seeing their own promotional content, but there’s obviously a difference between people giving away copies of the Bible and reposting videos filmed specifically for the Witnesses’ events. If it’s my own money on the line, I’m not sure I would want to risk taking on a wealthy organization when the financial repercussions could be severe.
There has been criticism, however, from other Jehovah’s Witness watchdogs who believe TTF should have fought this case harder. Lloyd Evans, a former Witness and longtime critic of the Watch Tower Society, sent me this statement. (Full disclosure: I wrote the foreword for his book.)
As someone who has been on the receiving end of a cease and desist letter from Watchtower’s legal team, I have every sympathy for Ryan and Ethan’s plight and the stressful situation they found themselves in. These guys went into this with the best of intentions and clearly bit off more than they could chew, perhaps underestimating the vehemence with which the Jehovah’s Witness leadership would shut down any unsanctioned use of their materials that could be considered dubious from a fair use standpoint.
That said, I really wish Ryan and Ethan would have gone about their fundraising campaign differently and with greater honesty and transparency. I supported their cause by pointing people in their direction in multiple videos on my channel because I assumed, according to their website, that they were serious about taking the fight to Watchtower.
If they had been fully transparent about their intentions and made clear that funds would be used in settlement if their target wasn’t met, that would be one thing (although I’m sure they realize that they would have raised less money with such a significant caveat). But to take such a large sum and then not use it for the reason advertised is highly questionable and will make it harder for ex-JW activists to attempt crowdfunding initiatives in the future.
When you are an ex-JW (which many but not necessarily all of the backers were) the last thing you want to see is money you’ve given to help fight an organization that has victimized you (through shunning and other means) to effectively have your money surrendered to it without a shot being fired.
I understand they are saying that a “majority” of the funds raised were consumed by their own lawyers, but with no transparency regarding the exact amounts in their official statement this will be scant reassurance. I fully sympathize and agree with backers who are saying that their money should be returned if it wasn’t used for the purpose for which it was requested.
McKnight said in response that they didn’t have a choice:
We raised money to help defend ourselves against the lawsuit. We made it clear that we needed at least 40k to fight this lawsuit in court. As we fell short, we had no choice but for our defense to be a settlement.
This is not what we wanted, but we literally had no other options.
I’m personally sympathetic to McKnight’s argument. As much as his supporters wanted this court battle to continue, that’s incredibly tough to pull off without proper funding. I don’t think there’s any hypocrisy or malfeasance involved in saying you’re raising money for a legal battle that eventually results in a settlement.
I hope FaithLeaks continues going strong. In 2018, just to give one example, leaked documents revealed how the Witnesses were mishandling sex abuse cases. But that situation involved leaked documents that fell into their lap, not propaganda films uploaded by the owners themselves.
(Image via Shutterstock. Portions of this article were published earlier)