U.S. Attorney Moves to Confiscate HTMLComics.com

The U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida has filed a civil complaint asking to confiscate the domains, including HTMLComics.com, that Gregory Steven Hart used to post copyrighted comics on the internet.

Hart posted scans of comics from Marvel, DC, and other publishers on his websites for the public to read for free, without registration or payment. He insisted that his actions were legal and that his site was the internet equivalent of a library. The FBI confiscated Hart's computers in April, and his sites have been down since then.

The complaint filed on May 26 lists six of Hart's domains, including HTMLComics.com, ComicBooksFree.com and PlayboyMonthly.com, as defendants and asks that they be forfeited to the United States of America. When asked if Hart himself was going to be charged, Steve Cole, the spokesman for the U.S. Attorneys office, said "There are no criminal charges or plans to arrest him."

Court papers obtained by CBR reveal that the FBI began investigating Hart in July 2009 because of complaints that he was posting comics on the internet without the permission of the copyright holders. Publishers had started sending Hart cease-and-desist letters in January 2009, asking him to take down the comics, but instead, he posted more. "Initially, the estimated number of issues available on the site exceeded 40,000," the complaint says, and by June 2009 the site claimed to host over 100,000 issues.

The complaint includes information from FBI Special Agent Lawrence Wolfenden, who investigates computer crimes for the Tampa Field Office of the FBI:

As recently as March 31, 2010, Agent Wolfenden has been able to view numerous comic books through the HTMLComics.com website, including various books of the following titles: Astonishing X-Men, X-Men: Divided We Stand, The Simpsons, Aliens vs Predator vs Terminator, Army of Darkness, Dilbert, Peanuts, Batman, Superman, Spiderman [sic], Watchmen, and Mad Magazine.

In January and February 2009, Bongo Entertainment, Inc., (holder of the copyright for "The Simpsons"), United Feature Syndicates (which owns "Peanuts" and "Dilbert"), Warner Brothers/DC Comics, and Marvel Comics Group all sent cease-and-desist letters to Hart. Warner Brothers and Marvel followed up with second letters in March and June 2009, respectively, yet Hart did not remove the comics.

In a November 2009 telephone conversation, Hart told Marvel's legal counsel that he had designed the HTMLComics.com website and maintains the files on its servers; that he did not own physical copies of the comics on the site but had received them as digital files from other people; and that he had not gotten permission from the publishers to display the comics. He also said that the site gets 400,000 to 500,000 hits, or about 8,000 unique visitors, per day. "Hart advised that if no company agreed to a revenue-sharing arrangement, he would continue to operate the site without charging users to view the comics," the complaint states.

On April 13, 2010, Agent Wolfenden was able to read four issues of the Marvel comic "The New Avengers," with cover dates ranging from May 2009 to August 2009, at HTMLComics.com.

On April 20, 2010, FBI agents served a warrant on Hart's home in Tampa, Florida, seizing papers and "numerous pieces of digital storage, such as hard drives, computers, and DVDs, on which are stored copyright-protected images." The papers included a cease-and-deist order from Thomas E. Niedrich, an attorney at the Washington, DC law firm Crowell & Moring, and records documenting Hart's ownership of the websites in question. During the search, Hart said that he was the owner and developer of HTMLComics.com and several associated sites, that the sites were hosted on computers at his house, and that the site PlayboyMonthly.com, which displays issues of "Playboy" and "Maxim" magazines, was also registered to him.

The complaint notes that that the cover price on the comics ranges from 25 cents to $3.00, and the cost of Marvel's digital subscription service is $10 per month, and concludes that Hart's site is harming the copyright holders. Given that the sites are "facilitating property" for Hart's violations of copyright law, the U.S. attorney has asked that they be forfeited "for disposition according to law."

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