Reading this case is like taking a master's course on the Streisand effect.
Screengrab: Citizenfour Trailer
The lawsuit, filed in December on behalf of the entire population of the United States, has been pretty well covered elsewhere, but some new developments, not least of which is Citizenfour's Oscar win, have made it noteworthy again. The general premise of the suit is that the film contains classified information, so it should be removed from release and re-edited in order to preserve national security.
Also, Poitras and Snowden should have to pay the government "billions of dollars to achieve restitution" for the damages done by Snowden's leaks.
The plaintiff, Horace Edwards, is a regular guy (as in, not a federal attorney) who identifies himself as a former naval officer. His and his attorney's actions since filing the suit, however, have only gotten more desperate and weird as it becomes ever apparent that the lawsuit is backfiring.
Reading the court case from start to finish is like taking a master's course in the Streisand effect and is a dictionary-perfect definition of frivolous litigation. Here is a rough timeline of events, which get increasingly odd as we move along in the proceedings.
October 10, 2014: Citizenfour is screened at the New York Film Festival.
October 17, 2014: Citizenfour is screened at the BFI London Film Festival.
December 12, 2014: Citizenfour is in 105 theaters in the United States.
December 19, 2014: Edwards and his attorney, Jean Lamfers, file their initial "billions" complaint, asking the judge to prevent the release of the film.
January 13, 2015: Lamfers files an "amended" complaint to include "United States of America" as a plaintiff. Yes, Lamfers attempts to sue on behalf of the US government.
January 15, 2015: Citizenfour is nominated for the Oscar for Best Documentary.
January 23ish, 2015: Lamfers requests that Citizenfour not be allowed to be entered as evidence. Instead, it should be screened to the judge and to the judge only, she argues.
January 24ish: Poitras and her attorney deliver a copy of the film to the Lamfers. She does not take it well.
"I said I did not want to take possession of it. This was because of my understanding the film contains classified information based on my having seen the film. I received no response to [my] request from defendants' counsel [to bar the film from being entered as evidence in court]," Lamfers wrote in an email sent to the judge presiding over the suit. "To the contrary defendant's counsel delivered a copy of the DVD to my office (which remains unopened and under lock and key)."
February 10, 2015: Poitras and her legal team are allowed by the judge to enter the film into evidence. Two DVD copies and a transcript of the film are submitted to the court
February 12, 2015: Edwards and Lamfers become concerned that the film has been entered into evidence. They file a motion to seal the DVDs, lest someone actually see the film.
Note that this injunction would only seal those two specific copies of the DVD. Citizenfour is still being screened in many theatres worldwide, and, in fact, was slated to premiere in seven new cities on the 13th.
February 13, 2015: Motion denied: "Given the inherently public nature of this film, the Court can discern absolutely no interest that could justify sealing this exhibit. Moreover, even if this DVD contained some sort of confidential information for which Plaintiff had an interest in preventing public disclosure, it has already been publicly filed," the judge wrote.
February 14, 2015: Cryptome, a site that posts hacker documents and that sort of thing, incorrectly assumes that, because the film was entered as evidence, it has entered the public domain and is free for anyone to use. Cryptome posts two copies of the full film for download on its website.
"I personally doubt this use of the film would avoid copyright infringement of uses of the film that were not otherwise fair, eg, comment on legal issues pertaining to the film," Jerome Reichman, a professor at Duke University's Center for the Study of the Public Domain, told me.
In other words, you can probably download and watch the film to comment on whether or not this lawsuit has any merit. Edwards and Lamfers, therefore, have, by filing this lawsuit, perhaps indirectly exposed classified information to more people. In any case, there are now easy-to-access, direct download links to the film.
February 14, 2015: Lamfers is required to remove the United States government as a plaintiff in the case.
February 17, 2015: Lamfers calls the court on an "emergency basis" in an attempt to temporarily seal the DVDs pending appeal.
February 18, 2015: Court emails Lamfers back, urging the lawyer to not make random emergency calls to the court.
February 19, 2015: Lamfers emails the judge, at 12:46 AM local time (according to the court record), chastising the court for endangering national security and for not immediately responding to her call.
"This situation has placed the plaintiff in an untenable position regarding avoiding irreparable harm and obtaining appropriate relief sought on a serious issue in a timely manner," she wrote. "The denial of a sealing motion has furthered the irreparable harm and relief necessary to address such harm, among other things, by the continuing injury through repetition of classified, stolen information that reaches a broader constituency of extremists with each showing."
February 19, 2015: In a "supplemental memorandum pursuant to emergency contact with court via email," Lamfers suggests that "better safe than sorry" is not merely a turn of phrase, but that, literally, the DVD should have been put into a safe where it could never, ever be seen.
February 22, 2015: The court formally asks Lamfers to stop calling:
February 22, 2015: Citizenfour wins an Oscar.
February 23, 2015: Citizenfour is screened on HBO.
The case is still underway.