Any website’s comments section — even our fancy new one — gets its share of scam artists, luring in clicks with promises of work-from-home schemes or miracle diets. They seem so easy to spot and resist, it’s a wonder how they can possibly work. The answer might be, as always, to innovate. Consider the case of Austin Obodai, an accused con artist who, before he was arrested, found a way to use the comments section to sue big Internet media companies for millions. According to prosecutors, Obodai came up with a novel method of exploiting intellectual-property law to invent a new type of fraud. You could call him a copyright troll — or, as Google’s lawyers did, “the Dread Obodai.”
Obodai is Ghanian immigrant in his twenties who lives in a large apartment complex in the Soundview section of the Bronx. At one court date, one of his adversaries remembers him dressed modestly, in a hoodie, but intelligent and well spoken, with a beautiful English accent. In every legal action he’s taken, he has represented himself, and his legal filings are cogent and dense and filled with precedent-heavy arguments, suggesting a keen legal mind. But little is known about Obodai, and he seems to like it that way: He politely declined to comment for this story, and the one time he has been deposed, he objected to nearly every question he was asked, including how to pronounce his middle name (“What do you want the pronunciation for? It is a name”) and how long he has lived at his present address (“Objection — calls for a speculative answer”).
We do know that Obodai came to America about ten years ago, and for much of that time he’s been running a website called Choicehow.com, a bare-bones affair filled with hundreds of short articles with some eye-catching, if sometimes nonsensical, titles: “How to Become Anorexic,” “2 Ways to Write a Check for $100,” and “How to Get Your Car Stolen.” At first glance, Choicehow.com seems like just another content farm — a website designed to attract the attention of automated search engines, attracting reader page views and the ad revenue that can come with them. But with Obodai at the helm, Choicehow allegedly formed the center of a scam that cost its victims — three deep-pocketed media companies — a combined million dollars in legal costs. The cost to Obodai, since he was representing himself without a lawyer, was nothing.
On April 5, 2011, Obodai filed a federal lawsuit against Demand Media, the company that publishes the website for the old Cracked magazine, claiming that some of the articles he wrote for Choicehow.com appeared in the comments section of Cracked’s website without his permission. Nowhere in Obodai’s lawsuit was he claiming that Cracked went out and copied his material. Instead, Obodai said that merely by hosting the comments section, Cracked was what the law calls a “contributory infringer” of his copyright. Here was the genius of his strategy: In the eyes of the law, being a contributory infringer is as bad as infringing directly. Simply by hosting the comments section into which Obodai’s creative works were cut-and-pasted, Obodai was arguing they were guilty of violating his copyright. What Obodai never disclosed was how exactly he came to learn that his articles had been posted on Cracked’s website. He claimed that a third party (or “good Samaritan”) tipped him off, and he seemed not to try too terribly hard to find out who that Samaritan was.
As those on the receiving end of those Napster-related music pirating lawsuits were sad to experience, each count of infringement can cost as much as $35,000, and if you can prove the infringement was willful, the judge can raise the penalty to $150,000 per work. The Cracked lawsuit went nowhere because of a technicality, but two months later, in June 2011, Obodai filed a similar suit, claiming several of his articles wound up on the comments section of someone’s posted YouTube video — YouTube, of course, being a subsidiary of Google. After more than a year of legal wrangling with Google (and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees), Obodai’s legal action against Google got tripped up by another technicality (the articles in question were written after Obodai’s copyright registration of his website). Undaunted, Obodai appealed the federal court’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals.
By the time the Google litigation finally went away, Google’s lawyers, who had now taken to calling him “the Dread Obodai,” had done a little digging about Obodai and learned that the material from his website that got posted to Youtube came from the same IP address that Obodai used to send Google a cease-and-desist notice. They appeared to have him dead-to-rights. The person copying Obodai’s articles was, it would seem, Obodai himself. But they never did anything about it. Maybe they stood down because Obodai’s appeal went nowhere, or maybe because the fees generated by lawsuits like Obodai’s are, as far as Google is concerned, the price of doing business.
It took a third lawsuit for Obodai to fly a little too close to the sun. In June 2012, he sued Indeed, Inc. — owners of Indeed.com, a résumé-posting website that’s bigger than Monster.com — alleging that a phantom Indeed user uploaded more than twenty of Obodai’s articles onto Indeed’s website. The claim could have cost Indeed some $2 million. Indeed filed a counterclaim when an outside counsel for Indeed, emboldened by what Google’s lawyers had discovered, hired a cyber forensic expert to prove that Obodai and the person who planted his articles were both operating out of the same IP in the Bronx. The infringer “would go directly to the infringing webpage and cut and paste,” attorney Robert Kleinman says, without wandering elsewhere on Indeed’s site first. “So it was clear he knew what he was doing.”
Indeed faced off in court with Obodai, who responded that everything they’d discovered was just speculation. Kleinman recalls warning Obodai to stand down. “I said to him, ‘Look, I know and you know that you’ve done this. It’s not going to get any better from here. You can drop this now. But trust me, if you decide to push this, it’s only going to get bad for you.” Obodai responded in kind in one letter by calling Kleinman “the most clueless, most ignorant, and most arrogant attorney I have ever come across.”
By then, the U.S. attorney’s office had taken notice. Last August, Obodai was arrested and charged with wire fraud. In court documents, the feds say that in all three of Obodai’s civil suits, the alleged infringers used the same IP at a public Wi-Fi network “at a branch of the New York Public Library located approximately one mile from Obodai’s residence.” They also said they have proof that the infringer used a certain Nokia tablet, and that Obodai had purchased such a tablet over the Internet. At the time of his arrest, according to his indictment, Obodai “had in his bedroom a Bible with a cutout in the shape and size of the Nokia tablet.”
Reached by phone last week, Obodai said he wouldn’t comment on any legal proceedings. That includes his latest lawsuit, this one against Attorney General Eric Holder and U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. His claim rails against “unconstitutional policies” and “authoritarian acts” — a “malicious” and “baseless” criminal complaint meant to derail his Indeed lawsuit and violate his constitutional rights. “In none of Plaintiff’s three civil lawsuits were any ‘factual findings,’” he wrote.
Obodai’s trial date is set for April. Last month, Obodai fired his court-appointed legal counsel, choosing to represent himself, as is his custom.
Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to IP addresses as ISPs.