Of 'MormonLeaks,' intellectual property and The Salt Lake Tribune -- recipe for bias?

There are, as many people know, two daily newspapers in Salt Lake City, Utah, the state's largest city, its capital city and, yes, world headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, often colloquially referred to as the Mormon Church.

One newspaper is the Deseret News, where I served as a national reporter in 2014 and 2015. The LDS Church owns the company that publishes the paper. Many church members in Utah appreciate the Deseret News' coverage and family-friendly orientation. (And as noted when I rejoined the GetReligion team, I do not report on the paper's faith coverage due to my previous association there.)

The other newspaper is The Salt Lake Tribune, now owned by a son of billionaire Jon Huntsman Sr. after years of tumult following the paper's migration from local ownership to being part of a hedge-fund controlled national chain. This newspaper has often run pieces critical of, if not hostile to, the LDS Church, mostly in the opinion pages, but occasionally elsewhere. The Trib's longtime religion reporter, Peggy Fletcher Stack, is an award-winning Godbeat journalist who is very well sourced in the LDS community, as well as among other faith groups in the Beehive State.

But it was another Trib reporter, Christopher Smart, who recently took on a dispute between the Mormon leadership and an independent website called "MormonLeaks," which disseminates its information via Twitter and, until recently, Facebook. The group, headed by Ryan McKnight, a former member of the LDS Church, seeks to make public internal Mormon documents in order to bring "transparency" to the membership. (There's another group with the "Mormon Leaks" name, who assert their data relates to LDS history, not current church operations. These people disavow any association with McKnight and company.)

On March 1, attorneys for Intellectual Reserve Inc., a non-profit LDS Church corporation that owns the copyrights to LDS Church publications and documents, sent a "takedown notice" to McKnight's MormonLeaks group, and one of its hosting sites declaring a leaked document asserted to be copyrighted LDS Church property. The document was reported to be an internal slide presentation for church leadership summarizing why some people quit their membership. 

Sharing these slides online, the letter stated, infringed on that copyright. The hosting firm took the document down, and now the Trib jumped in.

Under a headline of "LDS Church goes after MormonLeaks, accuses website of ‘copyright’ violation," we read:

Wednesday's letter from the LDS Church is the first threatening MormonLeaks with litigation, McKnight said Thursday, despite earlier posts that could be seen as more incendiary.
The PowerPoint surrounding "issues and ideas leading people away from the gospel," was taken down from docdroid.net, McKnight said. That was not his doing. He said he would have left it up.
The leaked presentation lists such things as "Ordain Women," "incredulity over church history," "pornography" and "lack of righteousness" as concerns that test Mormons' devotion.
The Utah-based faith had no comment regarding the material or the letter from Barry V. Taggart, manager of the church's intellectual property office.

One GetReligion reader wrote in to say the "scare quotes" around "copyright" in the headline put the Trib on McKnight's side.

I don't know if I would go that far, but there are enough intellectual property attorneys in Salt Lake City and south to Provo not in the employ of the LDS Church that one could offer an opinion on the validity of the copyright claim. Indeed, the University of Utah, a public university, numbers several professors on its law faculty who could address the copyright issue.

But the Trib account eschews the legal angle to focus instead on MormonLeaks' notoriety:

McKnight gained headlines in October [2016], during the church's fall General Conference, when he facilitated the posting of 15 videos showing LDS apostles privately discussing topics ranging from gay rights to politics to piracy. He said he simply wanted to offer "a peek behind the curtain" of the faith's burgeoning bureaucracy.
Mormon officials did not dispute the veracity of the videos, and McKnight soon was inundated by insiders wanting to anonymously make private LDS information public.

What the Trib apparently forgot is that the matter of copyright enforcement by the LDS Church, including information posted on or even linked to from a website, is hardly a new question.

Church leaders established Intellectual Reserve Inc. to protect the LDS faith's intellectual property back in 1997. Not long after, IRI sued an evangelical Christian group in Salt Lake City, Utah Lighthouse Ministry, for putting a weblink to previously unknown information on how to remove one's name from LDS Church membership rolls. In the 20 years since that case, it appears the subject is more easily found: information on name-removal is now summarized by UTLM in an apparently non-controversial article elsewhere on its website.

A federal judge's decision supporting the LDS Church's contention that Utah Lighthouse Ministry couldn't even link to another website's information because that site may have infringed LDS Church copyrights caused a stir in the early days of the World Wide Web. In 1999, a newspaper called The Salt Lake Tribune reported on that case, although a search for a current online link to the Trib story has been unavailing.

The journalistic issue is balance -- the latest Trib story is heavily weighted towards McKnight's perspective and downplays the church's viewpoint -- as well as memory.

The bottom line: Having LDS Church officials attempt to enforce its copyrights is nothing new, and not at all deserving of scare quotes.

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