A couple of dog breeders recently went at it like, well, cats and dogs in an Illinois based federal courtroom. The case involved a defamation claim, and ended in summary judgment dismissing the alleged victim’s case.

Kristen Henry operated breeding kennels and sold dogs, but also dabbled in Web development and computer programming. She operated Bonchien.com, a Web site containing a database of pedigree data for a small, Belgian dog breed called the Schipperke. Henry developed the Web site for non-commercial use by the dog breeding community. The site provided free access to the information. A user could conduct a query search for an individual dog’s pedigree. The data collected included dogs’ names, dates of birth, gender, parents’ names, offspring’s names, showing titles, color, medical certifications, and registration numbers.

John Tamburo created a site called The Breeder’s Standard (TBS), a Web-based dog pedigree software program. The program operated as a database designed for research and genetic calculations. Tamburo developed a computer program that used a Web browser to scan the Internet for information about dog breeds and copy data from dog pedigree Web sites (“the Data Mining Robot”). The data was saved as a text file and incorporated into TBS. Tamburo copied only data, not the formatting of the sites. Tamburo’s Data Mining Robot visited Bonchien.com and copied the information on the Web site.

When Henry learned about Tamburo’s Web scraping efforts she felt “frustrated and violated.” As a result, Henry posted a message to the Schipperke Yahoo!Group, an online message board for dog breeders. The subject line of the message was “My Schipperke Database has been stolen, and The Breeders Standard is the thief.” She went on to add: “Breeders Standard has stolen my Schipperke database and is offering it as a perk if you buy their software. Schipperke people, you don’t need that perk, as you already have my site to use for free. . . . I am asking the Schipperke fancy [sic] to complain loudly to [TBS]. Why should I do all this work so [TBS] can steal it and sell their software with this stolen perk?”

Tamburo then filed suit claiming that Henry defamed him. He pointed to the words “stolen” and “thief” as evidence. But the court concluded Tamburo was barking up the wrong tree.

According to the court, Henry’s statements were “substantially true.” In a defamation case, the statements do not have to be literally true. It is sufficient if the “gist” of the statements are accurate. And here, the court noted that Tamburo harvested data from Henry’s Web site that she had spent years collecting, repackaged it for his own use and profit, and did not have Henry’s permission to use the data harvested from the site. That may not technically constitute the statutory definition of “theft” but it is close enough.

Tamburo also lost because the court found that Henry had a “qualified privilege” to publish the statements. She had an interest in ensuring that her data was presented in a certain way and in controlling the manner in which it could be accessed. And she published the statements to people who likewise had an interest in the dog pedigree data. Because of the privilege, Tamburo needed to show that Henry entertained serious doubts about the truth of her statements.

Tamburo argued that Henry’s lawyers had advised her she had no legal recourse against Tamburo. In his view, that meant Henry knew her statements were false. But the court noted that the issue of whether Tamburo complied with all applicable laws was not settled, and Henry was free to disagree with her lawyer’s conclusion.

Tamburo also argued that because Henry took no measures to prevent the scraping, she knew the data was publicly available. But in the court’s view, that dog didn’t hunt. Her failure to protect the data did not mean that she’d abandoned her intellectual property rights.

The lesson? Depending on the circumstances, you may be able to get away with taking advantage of another person’s hard work. But don’t expect much sympathy if that person decides to dog you.