Jason Scott, creator of textfiles.com, tells some hilarious stories about ins and outs of the old BBS files archiving activity during a Defcon presentation.
Since the beginning part is kind of introducing myself and everything else, I am going to go move forward with that. My name is Jason Scott – that’s my proof (see left-hand photo). The name of this talk is “That Awesome Time I Was Sued for Two Billion Dollars”. It’s not a fake title, I was sued for two billion dollars, actually a little bit more. So, don’t worry, it’s not a trick, this isn’t going to be some CISSP bullshit. This is actually a real thing. Just saying…
I run a site called textfiles.com (see right-hand image), which is an archive of computer history. Started out pretty simple: I had a bunch of old computer bulletin board documents from when I was in my teens, and I noticed in around 1998 that there really wasn’t a huge collection of them online, and this surprised me. So I put them online and it got some press immediately, and it slowly grew in success. People started to send me their old computer bulletin board stuff. I have to ask this now, because when I now say “computer bulletin board”, how many people know what I’m talking about? Just checking…
What happened is that over time people started to send me other historical artefacts. They would send me things that were sound while those were in text files, so I created audio.textfiles.com. I started scanning all the ads that became digitized. I had ANSI art, I had music created by people in the 80s and 90s, ArtScene. And finally, pdf.textfiles.com, probably the lamest name on the entire set, which is stuff that was sent to me in PDF form. And I’ve put a lot of things up there of all various stripes, manuals and everything else, and it’s now really huge (see left-hand image). I probably have somewhere close to a terabyte of data online that I provide for free with no ads.
Including, I might say, cd.textfiles.com (see right-hand image). I’m mentioning this one because this is an interesting situation. I have a lot of shareware CDs, and if you don’t remember that period of time, everyone was really excited by the fact that you could get 640MB onto a single piece of plastic, but then we quickly ran out of things to put on them. So, what ended up happening was there were people who would go around to computer bulletin boards, and then they would grab all the files from them and shovel them onto one big CD and sell it for 15 bucks. Those were known as “shovelware”. Those guys were bottom feeding assholes, kind of like when you search and you see a “Hack a Day” article, and it’s got ads all over and it’s not Hack a Day – same idea, except, you know, 1990s clothing. Basically, I grabbed hundreds of those and put them online, so I have hundreds of gigabytes of shareware stuff. Those guys turned out to be archivists, who knew?
Things have gotten more intense lately. One day I had to go rent a truck. Why did I have to go rent a truck? Because it was given to me to take most of the collection of Leonard Tower who was one of the co-founders of the Free Software Foundation, who decided that he was trying to clean up things. So he gave me all of his old stuff that includes old issues of Byte journal, everything else (see left-hand image). So I had to actually get an intern, which is a crazy thing, and we’ve been sorting through this thing, creating paper.textfiles.com, where I have been basically taking all of these old magazines and cataloguing them. We may scan some portions or things like that.
In other words, I’ve been having a happy life doing computer history, and I vacuum up terabytes of data, all sorts of things. And this is kind of what I do. I love doing it. Chances are somebody has probably bumped into my site several times in their online career. I have had kids who were going to college, who have always known a time when textfiles.com is on, and tell me that it really influenced them. Very touching, very friendly.
Ideally, that should be the end of it, right? There’s me, there’s Al Jaffee who created the Mad Fold-In (see right-hand image), and we should all live happily ever after and everything should be awesome, except that I’m on the Internet.
So, on the Internet you get letters. When you have a terabyte of data, especially stuff you’ve collected kind of strangely, people send you letters. In fact, lawyers send you letters. I get letters from lawyers all the time. I get letters from regular people, too; and they are very friendly and sometimes they are angry, but when they are angry – so what? I don’t care. If the person is angry for a legitimate reason – great! If a person says: “You know, when I was 13 and I called myself “the mad dickwad” and I called myself by my friend’s real name and now I kind of regret it”, – I’m like: “Oh, that’s a real shame!”
This (see left-hand image) is a letter sent to me from Oblon, Spivak, McClelland, Maier & Neustadt, from a very nice person named Roberto Bran. Bear in mind this is a letter that merely warns me something, and it already says that it’s going to be C.R. Bard, Inc. v. Textfiles.org: “Infringement and Dilution of the BARDEX Trademark”, with a reference number which, to the glancing person who doesn’t quite know what they are up against, looks almost like it’s some sort of legal case number that’s been filed somewhere. None of that is true. This is, basically, a letter saying: “We don’t like something about your site. Get rid of it!”
What is it? (see right-hand image) Well, it’s an interesting thing: “We have not received a response from you and improper references to the BARDEX mark used to refer to enema equipment continue to appear in the several stories posted within your EROTICA section. In particular, inaccurate references to the BARDEX appear in the stories ‘An Interesting Saturday Night, Part 5’, ‘Lori’s Last Day’ and ‘Pamela’s Story’.”
It turns out that the BARDEX, which is a trademark of C.R. Bard, is only to be used as urological catheter. It is not to be used in enemas (see right-hand image). Yet, for some reason, a wide variety of erotic fiction – I want to point out that I have 7,000 erotic stories on my site – that is, if someone’s going to put something into anybody else in any way to enjoy it, and I have a story in which they do it… So, it stands to reason when you have this sort of quantum sex act that eventually somebody is going to go: “I don’t like the part where you took the three ponies and the ice cream cone, went into the ice cream truck and drove into a school – that doesn’t really make me happy,” and I’m like: “Just keep going, just keep going.” So, the important thing that I want you to know is “Don’t put the urological catheter in your butt!” But more or less, what they’re really pissed off about is the fact that the people who are doing this and having these wonderful enema stories are referring to it as a BARDEX; that is to say it’s using third trademark to indicate an act for which their item shouldn’t be used. This is something that’s called the Lanham Act.
I went to the site yesterday to check up on things, by the way; and this is their ad for the BARDEX (see left-hand image). I think he’s erotic fiction, I just want to point that out. Just so that you understand what the Lanham Act is: the Lanham Act was originally created as a way of when you trademark something and put it on the site of, say, “a barrel of rum”, and then dickwad over here put mud and a little bit of lie in and called it “your rum” – he was diluting your trademark, because someone would drink it and go: “Man, this barley rum sucks!” And you would be diminished.
Well, guess what happened: it got innovated upon. So, if you want to imagine a field and then by the end of it it’s a strip mall, with an airplane landing on it and everything else – that’s what they did. At this point, indicating any untoward act in which you mention a product by name can be considered a violation of the Lanham Act. For instance, if you indicate someone should make a bomb using a specific household cleaner, which was one of my files – the household cleaner people are angry and say: “Please don’t call it a ‘our name’ bomb.” And you go: well, that sounds somewhat okay.
And there’s another one where associate site of mine had a woman who was having sexual congress with a coke bottle. Well, did you know that the coke bottle’s shape is actually trademarked as a distinct thing? So, the fact that you could see it being misused in this obviously not sustainable fashion indicated the dilution of their trademark, and of course people would be like: “Wow, I get it: you shove it in your cooter!” Anyway, this is the kind of foolishness that happens. I’ve been attacked a bunch of times by font companies, because a lot of these shovelware companies would be, like: “Wow, this program doesn’t work if you don’t have this Windows font. Fine! Fuckin’ throw it on – we’re only going to sell 1,000 copies.” And then, you know, 15 years later I put it up. So, that’s what happens sometimes.
I’ve had people who mentioned to me that they uploaded a story, in anger, once, to one BBS in California in 1983, and I have it. So, all you young’uns, look out! Just saying… No one notices if I’m posting on 4chan. I just want to point this out: I have 10 million archived threads of 4chan for five years. I’ve been asked not to put it up publicly and hold it for good, and I will. And I am going to put it up. So, whatever you put up there, 20 years later some idiot like me is going to come along. I’m just saying… You’re going to be 40 and go: “Ah, fuck! He was right!”
But sometimes I get letters in the mail. And mail letters are a little more interesting because that means the person still knows how to use the mail, and that the person probably really wants me to know something. So, when you get mail that says “Evidence: Do Not Destroy”, and it lists a court case (see right-hand image), then you’ve got to spend a little time with it, because in a world where you can be sued for misusing enema equipment you might have something that’s legitimate that you have to watch out for.
So, I started to get a lot of letters from this one individual (see left-hand image). And, as you can see, they are written in perfect “crazy”, fluent “crazy”. Yeah, notice the “Legal Mail” stamp? Just so you know it’s legal mail. It was a notification of claimed infringement, and it says here “by” person – it doesn’t mean they did the infringement, it says this is the person who “made” this (see leftmost image below). It’s Paul Andrew Mitchell. As a disclaimer, I might be completely misstating everything about Paul Andrew Mitchell, but as far as I can tell, he is a fuck.
So, “Paul Andrew Mitchell, Author and Damaged Party, All Rights Reserved without Prejudice” – I don’t even know what that means. One of the first letters he sent me was something called “The Federal Zone” Copyright Amnesty Program (see middle image above). He started out with “Dear Neighbors”, I don’t get it. So, I understand from the way this is written here: “What the fuck does that say?” I’ve summarized it for you (see right-hand image): “Give me 25 dollars. Delete all your copies. Swear an oath you did it. I no longer allow copies of my book for free.”
I’ll go with a little more detail into “The Federal Zone”. It was a book that was written as a sold product, that is to say, he sold it on floppy disks. This was around 1994-1995. Its central thesis – I’m sorry to ruin it for you, spoiler alert – is that we exist based on some bizarre readings of the Supreme Court rulings that the only places that the federal laws truly have jurisdiction is over Washington, D.C. and a number of other federally assigned territories; and that a lot of other laws, including taxes, are not really valid. Therefore “You don’t have to pay taxes!” Signed: guy who had his bank account held for lack of paying of taxes – just in case you’re wondering what happened with the guy writing the book.
At the time that he started to write these letters to me, at one point he indicated that the Lenham Act permits triple damages (see right-hand image). This is an interesting assumption, it’s not true. But he estimated that there had been 2,371,324 downloads of his book on my site and probably a couple hundred others. In fact, mine had actually come from the Loft; the loft had archived all texts and I had that archive, and among them was this file, fedzone.txt. So, he simply assumed this wonderful number – no, he doesn’t explain where he got the number because that planet asks not to be identified. However, he claims that because these 2,371,324 people failed to pay the $25, he was now owed $59,283,100.00 in damages. “Also, I am batshit insane”,– that’s what it says in the end.
If you don’t come away with anything else I’m talking about here, bear in mind that in the grand scheme of getting legal threats and being told I am a bad person, I am probably one of the more rynoskinned people at this point. I am told I am awful all the time, in all various bits. I’ve been told this on comment boards, I’ve been told this in text files, I’ve been told this in voice mail. It’s what happens when you do a lot of different things on the Internet and you talk like I, obviously, do in this bombastic crazy ass funny manner that makes fun of people. But there’re a lot of you who don’t actually live that kind of life like I do. You wish to express yourselves, and you will express yourselves and you will encounter something like this. And there’s a real danger that you’ll come away from it, feeling like you’ve done something wrong or that every single person who takes the time to threaten you in this kind of fashion, which is not just “You suck! I hate you!” – is somehow valid.
I want you to walk away at least knowing, even if you walk out now, that: No, that’s not true. Don’t fall for that bullshit. Find out all the facts before you respond and go back. I just want to make that clear, because when you start getting letters like this – “Notification of Claimed Infringement” – then the next one says “Notice of Intent to Sue for Racketeering and Related Claims” (see left-hand image). Racketeering was invented to get rid of the mob, the idea being that if you have a gas station and you sell pot out of it, the gas station is liable for your pot selling. This is partially why a lot of franchises are owned by single people so they can go after it. Yet, theoretically, if someone wanted to, they could almost claim that McDonald’s Corporation was responsible in a racketeering way for a crime committed at a McDonald’s. This almost never goes that way. It sometimes happens in drug laws, but not often.
So, racketeering is one of those things where it’s understood why that tool came along, but it’s not necessarily something that’s going to happen. And this guy is claiming I was a racketeering organization because he thinks I stole his book.
Did I steal his book? That’s another question for another few minutes. After getting about 20 of these letters over the course of two or three years – I started getting them in 1998 – I was sent mail from the Constitutional Educational Research Foundation located in California. I should also point out, by the way, that all the mail that previously came – came through a series of mail drops. Mail drops were fascinating, and if you haven’t really been dealing with the mail in your lifetime, the way that most people send mail is that you send it out and it has to have a return address. But when you get your mail back, you have to kind of give them address. There are companies and places that will do nothing but take your mail in and send it to another one, and they’ll do this for X amount of months. And so, you don’t ever give your information out, and then you cut off that mail drop and go to the next place, and that’s why you do it. That way, if there’re old bills they have this address for you.
Well, he was a great education on all these different mail drops, because they were all over the place. Forwarding agent is a pretty good sign, by the way. So, one day, from a forwarding agent, I got mail from Lonnie G. Schmitz, settlement negotiator. He sent to “All Named Defendants” in this “Mitchell v. AOL Time Warner, Inc. et al.” lawsuit, which didn’t exist yet, by the way (see right-hand image). But it offered me great settlement opportunities for this.
For only $25, which was the price of the original, all these people could have avoided the lawsuit. Now they are faced with extensive legal expenses and the very real prospect of massive damage awards, with no ceiling in sight (see left-hand image). And later in the letter: “For your information, Mr. Mitchell has begun to pre-assign a portion of His awards to worthy charitable organizations. Depending on your unique situation, it may also be possible to offset His damages with a tax-deductible donation”.
Now, it’s interesting because then it says: “Well, if you settle, some of the money will help kids.” But the thing is, again, I want you to understand this from the point of view of a person who has no other knowledge of this going on: this is truly terror, because this person is speaking in extremely scary language, and these weird threats are coming through the mail, and he would write everything in the form of a legal document – you’d start to think that you are really truly fucked, and you wouldn’t know what to do. Ostensibly you would give him $25, i.e. this is probably vaguely extortion. In fact, by this point he’d actually been able to show some of the unpaid settlements that he believed he was owed for this legal case that hadn’t happened yet. So, his number was now at $97,112,041.31 (see image above). Check, please.
He also included a Miranda warning (see right-hand image). That’s awesome! I was mailed a Miranda warning! In the mail, I picked it up and I was told that anything I would say and do from this point forward could be used against me, I guess up to today. But damn it if you didn’t do it, if you didn’t just say that. He said: “Because of the Fifth Amendment you can do this, and because of this it will be held against you.”
So, who the hell is this moonbat? Because at this point, you’re like: “Dude, that’s nuts!” And really, honestly that’s kind of my take on it, too. His name is Paul Andrew Mitchell, his alias is Mitch Mulesky. It might be that his real name is Mitch Mulesky and he claims otherwise. We know that he attended a seminary and then dropped out. We know that he has a business degree, an actual business degree. We think he has mental illness; can’t be sure though. And at some point he started really falling in with the Finnish crowd; joined up with the freemen for a while, tried to be a representation with them when they failed to pay him for something, but he thought he was owed, he claimed that they were government clones trying to defraud him, so he started to go after them, which is a really dumb thing to do to men in cabins with guns but, fine, whatever. I guess that’s why you have a forwarding agent.
And he had invented this kind of interesting way of looking at the world in terms of a legal thing. You know, I understand that a lot of it, if you actually went down in these twisted logic tunnels that he’d dug, actually kind of made a sixth sort of sense. A few times he kind of makes leaps that are a little bit too far for the current, contemporary legal system. But it was still an interesting thing to read up on.
So, he wrote this book and put this book out, called “The Federal Zone”, of which I’ve already spoiled for you. He put it out with clear language that it was: “Give me $25 if you think there’s any use in it.” Since it is objectively useless, he didn’t get much money. He then announced he was withdrawing it from the Internet, and he did this by posting on some mailing lists. Again, this is 1997, there’s a slightly different feel about the Internet. But still, even at that time, it’s pretty contemporarily nuts, and he posted this warning and said: “Attention! This is no longer a freely available work, and now you may not have it.” And then he proceeded to send angry letters to more and more people, including America Online who he said was hosting it on various servers, which they may have been because they host a lot of stuff. And so, he basically said: “AOL owes me money, and these 150 defendants (of which 120 were John Does) owe me money.” Yeah, so now you know a little bit more about Paul.
So, one day a subpoena shows up. Now, again, I understand this subpoena may in fact be a cupcake. I mean, it’s not really, technically, supposed to be that, right? “Legal Mail”, and right under it “Served” to it (see left-hand image). In case anyone’s wondering, Cowz Technology is the business that owns Cow.net, which was the site that nominally had a mirror of Textfiles.com, and that’s why he keeps saying “Cowz” – that’s what’s going on there. So, this was actually to me and to my real address.
And it was fucking thick! So I knew I was in for a good read (see right-hand image). Here’s an interesting thing that he started to do after a short period of time: he started to emboss them. Again, I think what’s really important to understand is that a person you might not know better would see something embossed and go: “Okay, that must be some real shit.” His law firm, whose sole lawyer on staff doesn’t have a law degree, is called Supreme Law Firm. I believe it’s Supremelaw.org, where you can, by the way, download a complete free copy of his book, just in case you’re wondering.
But this one was from the District Court of the United States; it was from the Eastern Judicial District of California (see left-hand image). It had a real case number and it had a real judge who really did sign it. So, occasionally, the Internet will sue your ass. Who knew?
This is also something I just wanted to point out: he would always refer to himself as a “private attorney general” (see right-hand image). Just to explain where that comes from, there was a very specific, very unusual situation, where there was one description in an unusual case where someone could be called somebody acting in lieu of an attorney general, in a district that does not have an attorney general, and acting in a private fashion. But it’s mostly a case of this person interacting in the name of the government and so on. It’s a very specific thing. To call yourself the private attorney general means that you read that particular legal case from a moving car.
But private attorney general sounds pretty goddamn scary. It’s like the batman; he doesn’t have any actual laws he has to follow. He’ll prosecute your ass when and where he wants to. And this is very interesting, too: one of the reasons he chose the Eastern District of California at this time was that you could actually sort of mail summons. You could send it, register to whatever tracking number, and you didn’t actually have to send a person, which is much cheaper. He would always go for the cheap. A lot of his stuff was Internet café, a lot of stuff was like that.
So, anyway, lots of crazy shit in here; that’s all the people verified in the stuff. I just like to point this one out (see right-hand image) because this is actually in the middle of the lawsuit: “No one ever requested Plaintiff’s permission to modify the subject book, and then to make modified derivatives available for free on the World Wide Web of the Internet. No one! No one ever obtained Plaintiff’s permission to modify the subject book, and then to make modified derivatives available for free on the World Wide Web of the Internet. No one. Absolutely no one!” So, if you’re glad you’re not in the room with him – yeah…
By this point, he’s summarized the damages (see right-hand image) such that the summary for reasonable counsel’s fees, that is to say, himself suing me are to be addressed; summary of consequential damages to be addressed; and the summary of actual damages on Counts Three, Four and Five he hasn’t figured out yet. But Count One, the Copyright and Infringements actual – he’s counting infringements as “every time I think somebody downloaded something, they owe me the full value in damages”, $163 million. And Lanham Act violations, which, again, under certain circumstances treble, which may or not be this case – suddenly it’s $491 million. This gives him about $655,200,000.
And then he tacked onto it – by the way, he figured out the punitive damages by taking the infringement damages and tripling them – he came up with $1.9 billion. And finally, he added them back up again – that’s critical, you’ve got to understand: he got three eggs, threw together the eggs, and then ended up somehow with six eggs, six glorious Lanham Act violative eggs. Critical to understand! And he ended up with $2.6 billion.
I also just want to mention this, somewhere deep down there: “Over a period of several months, time permitting, Plaintiff surveyed the entire Internet, using the Alta Vista search engine developed by Digital Equipment Corp. (now owned by Compaq Corp.)” (see left-hand image). So, that’s, like, 1997, he’d looked at the entire Internet…
So, here’s the deal: it was a real lawsuit. A bunch of us were named. He had the Supreme Law Firm. Now, again, part of the problem here is that, if you’re alone, you almost think: “Oh my god, this maniac is somehow going to maybe get a billion dollars from me!” You can sit there with your buddies, you know, and you may say that’s stupid bullshit. But the fact is that when you’re alone and you don’t have anyone to talk to, you can feel really scared by that. So, anyway, we ended up banding together and creating the ‘supreme gall’ mailing list; and ‘supreme gall’ in us would pass along things he had sent, make fun of him and otherwise come up with stuff. So, of the 12 people on the ‘supreme gall’ list, who were all parties, three of us sent lawyers. I wasn’t one of them. My lawyer actually advised that I should, but that’s what a lawyer does, doesn’t he? As plumber says: “You need a plumber.” Anyway, they sent him along there, and of course he was insane.
Here’s the deal though: while he was pretty crazy during the actual lawsuit and said crazy things, what actually sunk his case – so don’t do this – is he upped the charges by indicating that we now owed interest on the original stuff that we owed (see right-hand image). So he produced this out of his butt, 7 percent up per annum, need to give more, and he sent that directly to us instead of through our lawyers or in absentia; and as a result, they threw his case out. He then said that the judge was part of the conspiracy, said some awful things to the judge and got declared of vexatious litigant, which means “You’re an asshole in the eyes of the court”.
I couldn’t come up with a good slide representing happiness and success, so this is a picture of me at 16 with my bulletin board system (see left-hand image), because I was really happy back then. The upshot of this thing was that I really learned a lot. And he did send me some letters afterwards, and I do collect them all, but kind of the nature of this whole thing is that you have to understand that you should never try to do things alone. I don’t mean that you have to go walk into the cops if you think you’ve done something wrong, but talk to other people about what you think is going on and where things are. Talk to people, because the fact is that working in ignorance allows scum like this to really take advantage of you. It doesn’t always come with a perfect neon-sized clown hat crazy like this guy. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s just a little side of “somebody has a different moral structure than you and he’s really going nuts and he’s telling you things that just inherently aren’t true”.
If you go to PaulAndrewMitchell.com, which I own, don’t call the two phone numbers – one of them goes to a Paul Mitchell hair salon, the second one goes to an abandoned insane asylum. But you can read all of these documents in all their ‘glory’, and read all about him, and get lots of information to see what crazy can look like.
So, anyway, here’s a whole bunch of ways to reach me (see right-hand image): Textfiles.com; my weblog Ascii.textfiles.com; I invite you all to visit the retro room that I helped put together here which has a functioning PDP-11 – please don’t avoid that, probably the last time you’re going to touch that medal while it’s on, or when it’s not your bed ban. And of course you’re free to follow my cat on Twitter, because people just love that cat.
Anyway, thank you so much!