Back in April, we did a story about the Cobblebot fiasco which continues to develop. Apparently, after initially launching a Kickstarter campaign for their 3D printer in July of last year, raising over $373,000 in the process for their $299 machine, the company has allegedly failed to meet all of their obligations. As customers began complaining on public forums and message boards, the company swiftly set out to silence these dissatisfied clients with threats of defamation lawsuits and by holding back some of their orders even longer.
Don’t get me wrong, there have been numerous Kickstarter campaigns in the 3D printing space alone which have failed to meet their initial timelines for delivery, and one caveat about buying anything on Kickstarter is that delays and disappointments do occur. With that said, this is America, and when a company fails to follow through, we have the right to express our dissatisfaction without fearing retribution.
According to many on the Cobblebot forum, as well as from an email sent out by the Cobblebot team themselves, company founder Jeremiah Clifft, thinks differently. Because of suspected defamation by clients, the company has admittedly held back numerous orders, while threatening to sue these individuals for defamation. So what’s up with Clifft, who was a business bankruptcy and personal injury lawyer before launching Cobblebot LLC, threatening to sue the very people who made his company possible? Should customers fear a defamation suit for their complaints? We asked an individual within the legal community who goes by the name Frederick (prefers to remain anonymous) to enlighten us all on just what our rights are when it comes to speaking out against poorly run companies. Note that none of the information below should be construed as legal advice.
“With the extension of defamation law to cover corporations, some companies began using their legal resources to stifle negative opinions and reviews about them, and there is a strong public interest in defending against this First Amendment issue,” explained Frederick. “What Cobblebot appears to be threatening is known as a SLAPP ‘strategic lawsuit against public participation’ and a number of states, including Texas (The state in which Cobblebot LLC is registered), have passed Anti-SLAPP legislation to try and stop such behavior.”
The Texas anti-SLAPP legislation is fairly strong. According to Frederick, defendants need to show only to a “preponderance of evidence” that the lawsuit they are defending against relates to the exercise of their First Amendment rights, which should be easy to do when the complaint relates to their criticism. At this point, the burden of proof shifts to the Plaintiff to demonstrate rather extensively that their case has enough merit to proceed. If they lose, the Plaintiff has to pay all the Defendant’s legal costs as well.
“It’s worth noting that it is still likely illegal to, for example, allege that the company has engaged in a crime (fraud) or is ‘running a scam’, etc,” explained Frederick. “You could, however, say things like ‘they suck’ or ‘this is the worst company I have ever dealt with’. And it’s more of a grey area to simply add ‘in my opinion’ or ‘I think’ to the former claims of illegality. Nothing in the legal arena is a slam dunk, but people shouldn’t be afraid to criticize, complain, or post highly negative reviews about products, customer service, and so on, as long as they’re stating facts, or clearly establishing a personal opinion.”
Even recently, since our last article was published approximately 6 weeks ago, Clifft and Cobblebot continue to make threats to their customers. Assembly instructions for the printer had been delayed for months, meaning that backers who received the kits basically couldn’t even build the machine. Recently though, Cobblebot released a locked-from-printing PDF which had to be ‘purchased’ for free using their online shopping cart system so that only registered customers could get the file. When users began commenting that it was rather simple to remove the PDF lock which would allow for the printing of the instructions — after all who wants to sit in their garage reading the instructions on a 4 inch smartphone screen while trying to assemble this somewhat complicated machine? — Cobblebot immediately released another warning stating, “Circumvention of security features is a criminal act and will be reported to the appropriate law enforcement agency. Such actions will also result in permanent banning from these forums.”
“I sincerely hope if Cobblebot is foolish enough to file these SLAPP lawsuits that they will be punished for it,” Frederick told us. “Unfortunately I suspect they are well aware that individuals’ fear of a lawsuit may be sufficient to silence criticism. At the least I hope you can raise awareness of how they conduct business and how they treat customers. It’s the worst I’ve ever seen.”
Basically, customers who are disappointed in the product or the delays, which continue to be an issue, should not fear retribution for speaking their minds. Without such criticism within any marketplace, low quality products and fraud would be rampant.
Let us know your thoughts on the Cobblebot situation. Discuss in the Cobblebot Defamation forum thread on 3DPB.com.