FunnyJunk attorney Charles Carreon has sued not just The Oatmeal creator Matthew Inman, with whom he has been in an Internet battle for the past week, but also crowd-funding website Indiegogo, where Inman set up a fund-raiser to spite Carreon — and, apparently, the American Cancer Society and the National Wildlife Federation, who are the beneficiaries of the campaign.
Here's the Courthouse News Service summary of the filing, posted by Ken at Popehat:
"Trademark infringement and incitement to cyber-vandalism. Defendants Inman and IndieGogo are commercial fundraisers that failed to file disclosures or annual reports. Inman launched a Bear Love campaign, which purports to raise money for defendant charitable organizations, but was really designed to revile plaintiff and his client, Funnyjunk.com, and to initiate a campaign of "trolling" and cybervandalism against them, which has caused people to hack Inman's computer and falsely impersonate him. The campaign included obscenities, an obscene comics and a false accusation that FunnyJunk "stole a bunch of my comics and hosted them." Inman runs the comedy website The Oatmeal."
This sounds outrageous on the face of it — who sues the American Cancer Society? — but when blogger Nick Nafpliotis called Carreon and asked why he is trying to shut down the fund-raiser, he responded that Inman and Indiegogo had not filed the proper paperwork, and thus they could just raise the money and pocket it themselves. It's a fair point, although given the highly public nature of this event, it's unlikely that Inman would do that. In other words, it's a technicality. Carreon also took exception to Inman's public mockery of him:
"I don't actually expect anyone to show up at my house with a weapon. But I think that when you insult someone by saying that their mother engages in bestiality, that is the first step in dehumanizing a person."
"It might not have seemed very dehumanizing when Walt Disney made Japanese people look silly with buck teeth and big glasses who could not pronounce their 'R's or their 'L's. But it was dehumanizing, and the purpose was to direct evil intentions against them, which ultimately resulted in the only nuclear holocaust that ever occurred in the history of humanity. I don't think Truman would have ever done that if we hadn't so dehumanized the enemy."
"When you dehumanize someone, that is the first step to inciting people. The emails that I've gotten...many of them wish me death or wish for the complete collapse of my law practice...and they are virtually all uninformed."
Again, it's a fair point (if a bit hyperbolic in this case), and it's a big problem with Internet discourse, but mocking someone online isn't actually against the law. Cyber-harassment is, but there isn't one shred of evidence that that's what Inman had in mind. In fact, he explicitly set up the fund-raiser as a way for his sympathizers to make a statement, presumably to direct the inevitable rage toward something positive.
Back at Popehat, Ken lists a number of reasons why this suit (assuming the summary is correct) is flawed, but aside from that, it could backfire even more spectacularly than Carreon's original letter. For one thing, it could fall afoul of California's anti-SLAPP statute, which penalizes plaintiffs who bring frivolous lawsuits just to harass the defendants. It could also bring the wrath of Matthew Inman down on FunnyJunk. What, you say, that already happened? Not really. Inman's lawyer, Venkat Balasubramani, responded to Carreon back when all this started, and his letter is available online. It's clearly written but rather long, so let's skip to the end:
This letter largely assumes (without conceding) that FunnyJunk would be entitled to claim DMCA immunity against claims of copyright infringement, but to the extent FunnyJunk decides to sue The Oatmeal, you can rest assured that The Oatmeal will explore the possibility of asserting claims for copyright infringement against FunnyJunk (third party content creators may be interested as well).
Balasubramani then points out at least one reason why FunnyJunk would not have immunity under the DMCA (the Digital Millennium Copyright Act). And the phrase "third party content creators may be interested as well" should send chills down the spine of the operators of a site that consists almost entirely of content uploaded by users. There could be a lot of third parties.
One final thing. After his conversation with Carreon, Nafpliotis concluded, "It's much harder for me to personify Charles Carreon as a force of evil after speaking with him. I truly believe he thinks that he's doing the right thing (along with the fact he was able to make some surprisingly good points)." Several other folks have spoken up in his favor to say he's a good guy who usually does the right thing. That's important. Internet rage feeds on anonymity, and while Carreon's letter is fair game, we would do well to remember that the person who wrote it is a human being, just like us—one who has just had a very bad week.