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The HTMLcomics shutdown: A bit of background

by  in Comic News Comment

Although the press release was just sent out on Wednesday, HTMLcomics.com was apparently shut down a few weeks ago. Posters on this bulletin board were puzzled about where it went in April, and someone linked to this comment on Yahoo:

I just called today (4/22) and spoke to the guy’s wife. She said that he (the site owner) got in a LOT of trouble, the FBI got involved etc – and the site will not be back ever. It’s completely down. *sigh* back to reading comics the old fashioned way.

There are some interesting angles to this. It seems to be the first time that comics publishers have banded together like this to take down a site, rather than just sending out cease-and-desist notices, but it also may be unique. The owner of the site, Gregory Steven Hart, operated out in the open and made no attempt to conceal what he was doing; indeed, he seems to be convinced he was running a legal enterprise.

Before we go any further, let me state, emphatically, that everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty. I have interviewed people who were accused and then exonerated, and it’s not pretty. So we should probably reserve judgment on the case at hand.

Nonetheless, it is interesting to follow the footsteps of Gregory Hart across the internet. Someone at NERDSociety.com interviewed him back in April. At the time, Hart said he was basically a computer nerd who doesn’t actually read comics, that he really did think that what he was doing was legit, and that the publishers were choosing to ignore him:

Both Marvel and DC leave me alone as long as I stay 6 months to a year behind. Image is more complicated due to their book titles changing often. Also, htmlcomics.com is non commercial, we don’t sell the books for download and they are unable to be downloaded–consider it like a lending library.

And here, he claims to have actually spoken to Marvel:

We have spoken with Marvel’s legal department and other lead officers within their corporate structure. All is good. Our approach is not distribution, hence the reason we’ve been around for over a year, and will be around for a long time to come. Google is using our site as a reference of how to create an online library, and not violate copyright laws.

Indeed, the website for his company, Database Engineers Inc., actually includes HTMLcomics in the Portfolio section. He certainly was up front about it. And perhaps with reason: When Lucas Siegel posted about HTMLcomics.com at Blog@Newsarama in January 2009, commenters called him a snitch and worse.

Hart apparently has had at least one run-in with the law, according to this newspaper article from 2007, which states that after Hart was arrested on charges of driving with a suspended license and resisting arrest, he sent out spam e-mails accusing the arresting officer of being a pedophile. (Hart’s defense was that the e-mails didn’t actually state that but merely named the officer and asked, “How is he a suspect as a child molester? Is he homosexual? Does he have sex with boys under the age of 16? Regularly?”) The officer sued.

Hart also had a novel legal theory about why his site was not violating any copyrights but was, in fact, not much different from a library. He actually asked about it at FindLaw.com but didn’t care much for the answers he got.

Maybe he should have paid more attention.