We’re all familiar with the old chicken or the egg adage. Which came first? This saying applies to many interesting historical settings, and it can be applied to history that was made through the Cubby v. CompuServe court case.
Think about the internet, social media, and the way we consume content today. To us, it makes sense that if someone posts a defaming post about another person on their Facebook page, one does not point the finger at Facebook, they point the finger at the person who wrote the post. This seems intuitive to us. At one time, it wasn’t that way. Kent Stuckey and the CompuServe legal team made it possible for us.
Before diving further into the Cubby v. CompuServe case, let’s explore one of the main actors in this piece of history, Kent Stuckey. A graduate from Otterbein University, Stuckey majored in political science, psychology, and music performance. At Otterbein, which Stuckey mentioned played a crucial role in his long term success, Kent was immersed in the arts – including acting, singing, and instrumental music.
“The arts were a big part of my success in law. Understanding the human factors behind the action is exactly why companies like Apple have become so successful. I took the arts into my practice of law. The law is largely about things that have already been decided. I wanted to explore uncharted territory.”
Stuckey went on to acquire his JD from the University of Michigan and eventually an MBA with an emphasis in finance from The Ohio State University.
Stuckey joined the CompuServe team as General Counsel at the age of 29 after having served them as a client during the first position he held at the law firm he worked for.
“CompuServe was the Internet before the Internet,” Stuckey said recounting why he chose to explore the corporate end of the law.
One of the crucial pieces of the overall business structure that Stuckey worked on with CompuServe was to explore the landscape of how they interacted and worked with content providers.
“Rather than making our content providers employees, we made them independent contractors and gave them more discretion. While we still managed them, we believed that it limited our liability. This was key; if a library was responsible for creating the content on its shelves, it wouldn’t be free. If a newsstand was responsible for the content it sold, a magazine would cost $100.”
One of the key successes the legal team accomplished under Stuckey’s leadership was insulating CompuServe from the music companies and publishers who were trying to hold it responsible for censoring and monitoring content distributed by their service.
It was at this critical juncture that Stuckey and outside counsel realized that to truly allow the future of the Internet to flourish, there needed to be a legal framework established in order to unfetter its growth.
Enter Cubby, Inc. v. CompuServe Inc.
This court case and lawsuit originated as a libel suit that was brought against CompuServe. However, it originated from the publication, Rumorville USA, which was an online daily newsletter. Rumorville published a defamatory statement about a competing online newsletter, created by Blanchard and Cubby, Inc.
When this case was brought against CompuServe, they understood just how crucial it would be to the future of the Internet as we know it. Stuckey went to work bringing on as much firepower as he could to support their team in court because something this critical could not be left to chance.
The most important distinction, in this case, was that CompuServe was the host of these pieces of content, and worked with third party contractors who generated the material. These contractors managed, reviewed, created, deleted, and edited all of the content for certain online news forums. While this may sound redundant in today’s world, back in 1991 there were no established laws around who was responsible for the content.
Cubby, Inc. claimed that CompuServe, as the online service provider, should be considered the publisher of the content, and therefore liable under traditional defamation laws.
The pivotal piece of context around this case was that the court ruled that CompuServe acted as an online intermediary that did not have editorial dealings and was simply a distributor, not a publisher. While several cases similar to this followed, this case provided the groundwork for the Internet we have today.
“This court case led to statutory immunity for service providers under the Communications Decency Act that insulates providers who did not produce the content in question,” Stuckey recounted.
“Some of my favorite memories are sitting with Rich Baker and brainstorming the ideas of if a library is responsible for the books on its shelves, or a newsstand for the magazines it sells? This concept was crucial to establish, and the presiding judge latched on to this idea during the court case and at the end of the day it helped us win.”
CompuServe, built right in Columbus, Ohio’s back yard, invented email and built one of the first major online service companies that hosted significant amounts of content and also connected itself to other content providers and networks.
While these articles are simply a glimpse into the foundations of the Internet, and how one midwestern company would go on to change the world, we hope that you’ll come to understand and appreciate the magnitude of what CompuServe accomplished during the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s.
Authors Note: To Jeffrey Wilkins, Rich Baker, and Kent Stuckey, I’d like to thank you all for the wisdom and candor in which you shared a small piece of the CompuServe story. It is safe to say that what you built will forever be a standing legacy of what perseverance, intelligence, and creativity can accomplish when placed in the right environment during a time that needs it.