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american lawyer media news service San francisco-Companies besieged by unwanted e-mail can invoke California’s trespass-to-chattels law only if the messages cause actual damage to equipment or property, the California Supreme Court has ruled. Ruling 4-3 in a case that’s been closely monitored in free speech and technology law circles, the justices said it’s not enough if the unwanted messages just take time and attention away from employees. But the majority ruling, by Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, said the law could still be used against senders of spam that overloads company servers. The court stressed that the thousands of e-mails that former Intel Corp. employee Kourosh Kenneth Hamidi sent to workers’ company e-mail addresses were different from the bulk spam messages that can overburden a company’s computer systems. “Intel presented no evidence its system was slowed or otherwise impaired by the burden of delivering Hamidi’s electronic messages,” Werdegar wrote in Intel v. Hamidi, No. 03 C.D.O.S. 5711. In fact, she wrote, “no evidence suggested that in sending messages through Intel’s Internet connections and internal computer system Hamidi used the system in any manner in which it was not intended to function or impaired the system in any way.” The majority opinion was cheered by advocates of free speech and experts in computer law, many of whom filed amicus briefs in the case. The court drew precisely the right line, Mark Lemley, a University of California, Berkeley School of Law professor, wrote in an e-mail. “By drawing the line it did, the court makes it clear that [Internet service providers] can stop spam that shuts down their systems, while forbidding companies from using the tort of trespass to chattels as a competitive weapon or a way to stop speech.”

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