A federal judge in Alexandria yesterday permitted The Washington Post to retain a copy of Church of Scientology texts and to use the texts in its news reporting, saying the paper's news-gathering rights far outweigh claims that the documents are protected by copyright and trade secrecy laws.
U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema refused to issue a preliminary injunction against The Post, saying its excerpts of the church's texts in an Aug. 19 Style section article were brief and did not diminish the texts' value to the worldwide church.
The article, which reported on lawsuits filed by the church to prevent critics from putting its texts on the Internet computer network, included brief quotations from Scientology documents obtained from a federal court file in Los Angeles.
"The public interest lies with the unfettered ability of The Post to report on the news," Brinkema wrote.
The church originally sued Arnaldo Lerma, 41, of Arlington, a former church member who put portions of the texts on the Internet. On Aug. 12, U.S. marshals seized computer equipment and files from Lerma's home after Scientology lawyers argued that Lerma might possess protected trade secrets and copyrighted material.
Brinkema found it likely that The Post's story on that and other Scientology suits would fall within the "fair use" doctrine, which balances the rights of copyright holders with the public need for information in areas of widespread interest.
Mary Ann Werner, vice president and counsel for The Post, said news organizations generally are entitled to publish brief excerpts so long as the quotations are not so extensive as to damage the copyright's financial value.
"We used this material in a very limited and judicious way," Werner said. "There is no valid claim that we violated their copyrights or trade secrets."
Erle C. Cooley, a Boston attorney for the church, said he had not decided whether to appeal.
"At stake is the future of intellectual property law in this country," Cooley said. "I don't deny this is a newsworthy article, but thousands of articles are written about Coca-Cola, and they don't print the formula for Coca-Cola."
The church has gone to extraordinary lengths to protect the documents. When a federal judge in Los Angeles refused to seal a court file containing the texts, five Scientologists checked the file out daily to prevent others from reading and copying the material.
After The Post succeeded in copying 103 pages from the court file on Aug. 14, and then used brief portions in its article, Scientology added the newspaper and reporters Marc Fisher and Richard Leiby to its suit.
The church's original lawsuit is still pending, and the judge subsequently ordered the files sealed.