California's high court limited how traditional property laws are applied to the Internet, ruling that a former Intel Corp worker didn't trespass when he sent thousands of e-mails to the company's servers criticizing Intel.
Intel, the world's biggest chipmaker, sued engineer Ken Hamidi in 1998, claiming he trespassed on its property by sending up to 35,000 e-mails to employees complaining about the company's employment practices.
In a 4-3 ruling, the California Supreme Court in San Francisco overturned an appeals court decision that stopped Hamidi from sending unsolicited e-mails to Intel.
Chuck Mulloy, a spokesman for Santa Clara-based Intel said the company is reviewing the decision "in the event that Mr. Hamidi resumes spamming Intel."
Monday's ruling may hobble businesses seeking a court order to stop people from sending unwanted commercial e-mails.
A Ferris Research study said so-called spam messages may cost US companies and other organizations US$10 billion this year.
Forty-five percent of all e-mail this year will be spam, according to Radicati Group.
Hamidi's attorney, William McSwain, said his client's e-mails were "minuscule" in quantity and that the ruling doesn't "leave anyone powerless against spam." he majority left open the possibility that Intel could stop Hamidi by proving he had damaged its computer system.
"This case could theoretically be over, but they gave Intel a road map," said Mark Theodore, an employment attorney.
"They'll have to show damages the next time," he said.
Hamidi's e-mails urged workers to change the company's employment practices by joining a group called FACE Intel or Former and Current Employees of Intel.
The majority said Hamidi's e-mails prompted discussions among employees and didn't damage the company's property.
Justice Janice Brown, in a dissent, said the majority "misses the point."
"Intel's objection is directed not toward Hamidi's message but his use of Intel's property to display his message," Brown wrote.
McSwain said that if the injunction had been allowed to stand, any "movement of electrons" could be subject to the trespass law, including a phone call. McSwain said he didn't know if his client would resume sending e-mails to Intel.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which champions civil liberties on the Internet, said the ruling removes the fear of being sued for those who send e-mails and use the Internet.
"The Hamidi case establishes that even if you send electronic communications after recipients tell you not to, you are likely protected from spurious trespass lawsuits as long as there is no harm to computer systems as a direct result of the electronic communications," Cindy Cohn, EFF legal director, said in a statement.
McSwain also said it was a victory for free speech advocates.
Intel said it has never tried to stop Hamidi from exercising his free speech rights or organize a union and casts the case as a simple trespass.
Brown warned that even though "those who have contempt for grubby commerce and reverence for the rarified heights of intellectual discourse" will applaud Monday's decision, the ruling may actually "curtail the flow of ideas."
"Creative individuals will be less inclined to develop intellectual property if they cannot limit the terms of its transmission," Brown wrote.