Phi Sigma Sigma Sorority Sues Member For Revealing Secret Handshake On Penny Arcade Forum

Every time people tell me that lawyers now have a strong enough understanding of “the Streisand Effect” such that it’s less likely to happen these days, I laugh. There’s always someone new who hasn’t figured it out yet. This story was pointed out to us by Chris O’Donnell, who said he never realized that Barbra Streisand had been a member of the Phi Sigma Sigma sorority. You see, back in November of 2011, a former member of Phi Sigma Sigma posted to a thread on the Penny Arcade forums, detailing some of the “secrets” of the sorority, including its silly secret handshake. The overall thread was started by someone asking fraternity and sorority members to reveal various secrets, such as initiation rituals. The thread was actually started in early 2010, but long after it had died out, someone under the name “stepscloser” posted the following:

Phi Sigma Sigma secrets are:

Phi Sigma Sigma (PSS) secretly stands for Philanthropic Social Society. However, this is never written down or recorded (until now) because it is so “sacred”. The Handshake consists of a series of motions. Member A first begins with the pointer finger and the thumb surrounding Member B’s pointer finger and thumb. This is the “Phi”. Then Member A wraps the remaining fingers, middle, ring and pinky around the hand as a symbol of the “Sigma”. Depending on who is the senior member, the pinky finger is wrapped around the older member’s hand. Next is the hand knock. It goes Knock. Pause. Knock. Pause. Knock, knock, knock. The meetings are set up usually with the President, VP and other officers sitting at the front. The President wears a yellow or gold robe and the officers wear royal blue robes. The remaining members sit across from the officers in a pyramid formation with the base closest to the officers and the apex farthest from the officers. Members are seated by class order, then by alphabetical order. The table at which the President and Vice President are seated consists of candles on each side. Two gold candles and one blue at each corner of the table. Members usually recite an oath, “We, the members of Phi Sigma Sigma, promise to keep secret and sacred all of our proceedings.” The way to enter the pyramid is by using the hand knock to notify the members you are wanting to enter the room. The President will respond back with her gavel by repeating the knock. The person will enter then travel to the apex of the pyramid formation. The President will say the secret and sacred words “Remove the Veil” and then the member will respond back with the Chapter’s name, example, “Zeta Eta.” The Gold and King Blue symbolize “Perpetuity” and “Sincerity”. At initiation, blue “veils” (tulle from the local fabric store) are placed on the heads of the potential new members and are later removed to symbolize some sort of occult transformation and that they are full-fledged members.

So, yeah. Never having cared much about fraternity/sorority anything, that sounds about as much like I’d expect some random silly initiation ritual/secret handshake to sound like. The kind of thing people make up to make people feel like they’re special for joining a group, while it has no real significance.

Either way, considering it was on a thread that was long since dead, chances are this would pass on into oblivion. But, no. A year later, the sorority had its lawyers contact Penny Arcade to file a very misguided DMCA notice:

I am legal counsel to the board of directors of Phi Sigma Sigma, Inc. Phi Sigma Sigma was founded on November 26, 1913, and today maintains over 100 active collegiate chapters throughout the United States and Canada. This letter constitutes notification of claims of intellectual property infringement and violation of Digital Millennium Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. Section 512 (the “DMCA”).

Phi Sigma Sigma is the owner of certain trade secrets including, but not limited to, certain rituals conducted by members of Phi Sigma Sigma (collectively, the “Trade Secrets”). These Trade Secrets constitute confidential and proprietary information of Phi Sigma Sigma.

We ask that you expeditiously respond to this notice by immediately removing or disabling access to this infringing material including, but not limited to, removing the entire posting and all replies. Please promptly confirm any action that you take within ten (10) business days of receipt of this letter.

Of course, trade secrets are not covered by the DMCA, and the information in the post was not covered by copyright, so already this lawyer is on shaky, shaky ground. Penny Arcade’s “Gabe” (aka Mike Krahulik) refused to comply, noting that the sorority could just change the damn handshake if it was that important. The lawyer never followed up to sue Penny Arcade, but apparently is now suing the former member in King County Superior Court, though it’s not clear the sorority has any idea who “stepscloser” actually is.

Now, attorneys representing the sorority are seeking a court order restraining the former member – “Jane Doe” in the lawsuit – from disclosing confidential information about Phi Sigma Sigma. They’re also seeking financial compensation for harm they claim has been done to the sorority.

“The defendant knew that the information that she was posting had not been publicly disclosed and would damage” the sorority, attorney Karin Jones said in the civil lawsuit. “The defendant admitted in her posting that the confidential information she disclosed is never written down or recorded and that that the organization and its members consider the information ‘sacred.’”

Yeah, good luck with that one. At least they gave up on the ridiculous idea that this was a copyright violation.

Either way, now this long dead thread on an old internet forum post, that no one had been paying much, if any, attention to, is suddenly getting tons of attention. You would have thought that the sorority would have realized how idiotic this was after the Gabe post from two-and-a-half years ago, but apparently the message didn’t get through.

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