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Thursday, June 28, 2012
by Rebecca E. Hoffman
When a putative plaintiff tests the limits of copyright protection for original internet content, this conduct can result in further development of this constantly changing area of law, so we can be more informed when new disputes arise.
But when a plaintiff tries to get the law on his side using finger-pointing and other schoolyard gestures, it serves as entertainment for the rest of us. Bonus!
When we pushpin our content onto the vast public bulletin board space that is the internet, we aren't sure what others will do with it. Bloggers and others are wont to include some legalese that sounds as if they might take some sort of action against you if you try to steal their stuff. Others assume that some commandeering sharing of content is inevitable, and will appeal to their readers' good natures, asking that they provide proper attribution for anything borrowed.
This image was created by, and is the copyrighted work of Allie Brosh at the very funny Hyperbole and a Half:
In her FAQ, Brosh elaborates:
Is your work copyrighted? Can I repost it?My stories and drawings are copyrighted, but as long as you attribute your use of my images/words correctly (with a link to the source of the material), it should be fine. But please don't completely repost anything (that's such a gray area and it has worked out horribly for me in the past). Problems only arise when you use my work in a way that suggests you're trying to pass it off as your own. I work very hard to create these posts and it hurts my livelihood when my work is reposted without credit (websites like funnyjunk.com are horrible about this.) Plagiarism always hurts the artist.
Wait, did you mention funnyjunk.com? That's where I was going with this in the first place.
Another very funny website, TheOatmeal.com, contains numerous "webcomics." These have become so popular that Oatmeal proprietor Matthew Inman published a Real Book of them, and is working on a second. He also sells merchandise sporting some of the more popular comics.
Inman posted to his blog a year ago that FunnyJunk.com was posting his (and others') material on the site without attribution, and was ostensibly making money through the advertising placed around the "stolen" content. "I realize that trying to police copyright infringement on the internet is like strolling into the Vietnamese jungle circa 1964 and politely asking everyone to use squirt guns," Inman observed, "but I felt I had to say something about what they're doing."
Early this month, Inman received a Scary Attorney Letter from FunnyJunk's lawyer, Charles Carreon. Carreon threatened Inman with legal action unless Inman forked over $20,000 in "damages" for Inman's "false accusation of willful copyright infringement." Inman's response on TheOatmeal.com to the "falsity" assertion includes a handy (and long) list of the comics he was still able to find on FunnyJunk.com at that point.
After artfully mincing to little bits everything in Carreon's letter, Inman announced that he would not be presenting FunnyJunk with its "damages." Instead, he would permit his readers to donate funds, which he would donate to the National Wildlife Federation and the American Cancer Society, but not before taking a photograph of the collected cash and sending it to Carreon. Inman said that he would try to raise the $20,000, but it took only an hour to raise that much after he put out the call. He closed the donation page after it reached a little over $220K, all of which is going to charity.
The story becomes even more fun after that. Carreon himself has sued Inman for "cybervandalism." Apparently, readers of TheOatmeal, and others who just heard about this craziness, decided to "help" by harassing Carreon all over the internet, hacking into his website, and using his e-mail address to sign him up for things, among other pranks. Inman "never encouraged anyone to attack, harass, or otherwise contact" Carreon, and told his readers to "stop harassing Carreon. Be lawful and civil in your interactions with him."
The lawsuit can only be described as frivolity on top of frivolousness, or, as Inman put it, silly (but with the capacity to injure him). Carreon has even included the charities as defendants. This site goes into a lot of detail about it, over a series of posts. On June 21, the Electronic Frontier Foundation got into the game. EFF's press release states that "[t]his lawsuit is a blatant attempt to abuse the legal process to punish a critic," and they will assist Inman's lawyer in representing him in this matter.
It goes without saying that this has spiraled, but not out of control. I think Inman, EFF, and all the others that have emerged from the interwoodwork to support him, still have all of the control, with the truth and the First Amendment on their side.
From Inman's suggestion that someone hasn't played nice and followed the rules of sharing, there is now a whole heckuva lot more internet content by interested commentators who have joined this discussion. This content can be enjoyed, fairly used, and maybe infringed, but we hope not. This is far from over; stay tuned.
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