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Scientologists Sue, Seize Critic's Computer Files

February 14, 1995|ALAN ABRAHAMSON and NICHOLAS RICCARDI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Led by a lawyer brandishing a federal court order and backed up by a pair of off-duty police officers, a handful of Church of Scientology representatives searched a Glendale house Monday and seized hundreds of computer disks and files allegedly containing copyrighted religious texts.

In the latest twist to a fractious dispute that began in cyberspace and landed last week at a federal courthouse in San Jose, Scientologists spent six hours Monday searching the house of Dennis Erlich, an outspoken critic of the church, for material about the Los Angeles-based church that they believed he transmitted, or intended to transmit, on the Internet.

Erlich said the Scientologists confiscated more than 360 computer disks and 29 books, and served him with court papers disclosing that the church is suing him for copyright infringement, along with a North Hollywood businessman who runs an Internet bulletin board and a San Jose-based firm that provides access to the global computer network.

"They're taking the hard copies, they're taking everything!" Erlich said over the telephone as his house was searched for material containing church policies and spiritual doctrines released only to initiates.

"What can I do? These guys have guns."

Thomas Small, the lawyer who led the search, confirmed that the searchers took material but said that their actions were lawful. In the complex and arcane field of copyright law, he said, a search and seizure like the one Monday does not need to be performed by police--as is the case, for instance, in a criminal investigation.

Small said such a search is "not all that different from the kind of anti-counterfeiting going on in the toy field . . . where T-shirts and things are being impounded regularly."

Small said the searchers took boxes of material but he was unsure how much until it is catalogued.

The dispute that led to Monday's search has been brewing for months on the Internet. While Scientology lawyers contend that it revolves around copyright law, Erlich says it is an issue of freedom of religion.

Erlich admits that he has been transmitting, or "posting," church materials to the Internet's "alt.religion.scientology" news group, where they could potentially be copied by millions of users worldwide. The material got onto the Internet via bulletin board system operated by North Hollywood businessman Tom Klemestrud, 44, and then through computer facilities run by San Jose-based Netcom On-Line Communication Services.

Erlich, a Scientologist from 1968 to 1982 who was trained as a church minister, said he does not believe that the material he posted is copyrighted. "In fact, word for word, it is not," he said.

" . . . I was trained as a minister on this material which they are calling sacred scripture," he said. "I am a minister licensed to practice my ministry and that is material I was given to minister with.

"They excommunicated me and now I'm making use of that same material by preaching or writing or publicizing my religious obligation onto the Internet."

Claiming instead that the postings were copyright violations, the church's publishing company, Bridge Publications Inc., joined by Religious Technology Center, holder of the "Dianetics" and "Scientology" trademarks, sued last Wednesday in U.S. District Court in San Jose.

Named as defendants were Erlich, Klemestrud and Netcom. The suit seeks a restraining order as well as monetary damages of $120,000 per infringement.

Last Friday, Judge Ronald M. Whyte issued an order directing the seizure of computer disks and other materials from Erlich's home.

The search began at 7:30 a.m. Monday. A Glendale Police Department officer was present at the beginning of the search and another at the end, but not in between, both Small and Erlich said.

"Our presence there was to keep the peace and pursuant to the court order we assisted in the execution of that order," said Police Department spokesman Chahe Keuroghelian.

Two off-duty police officers and a private investigator, "retained for this purpose," were present at all times, Small said. Erlich said the police identified themselves as off-duty Inglewood officers.

The search lasted until about 2:30 p.m., Erlich said.

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