Barbra Streisand was incensed when an aerial image of her Malibu seaside mansion was posted on Pictopia.com in 2003, and sued the site for $50 million. The image had only been downloaded six times as of the date of the lawsuit (and two of those were from the singer’s attorneys) but that soon changed with the publicity the lawsuit generated, with nearly half a million people checking it out in the subsequent month. The corollary of actually drawing massive attention to an online element that you want quashed was then labeled The Streisand Effect, and the latest instance centers around a lawyer Ars Technica has labeled “The Internet’s Most Hated Man,” Charles Carreon, and his borderline ludicrous battle against webcomic The Oatmeal. And, it seems, a considerable chunk of the rest of the web.
Putting Out the Fire with Gasoline & Nitroglycerin
Since online reality is often so much more imaginative than fiction could ever be, we have on one side Carreon, an indignant, choleric, wrathful attorney with a subpoena printer floored in fifth gear; and on the other side Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal who found his original copyrighted content slathered all over FunnyJunk, the site Carreon represents, whose users have, without permission, uploaded hundreds of Inman’s webcomics to the site over the last several years.
Inman issued DMCA takedowns, and in a remarkable turnaround, Carreon demanded that Inman pay $20,000 for defamation of FunnyJunk (which is the infringing party). Both parties proceeded to put out the fire with gasoline and a little nitroglycerin thrown in for good measure.
Inman launched a fundraising effort to donate the money to charities rather than pay FunnyJunk, and proceeded to post irreverent and defamatory cartoons targeting his legal opponents, while Carreon went on a subpoena binge targeting Twitter, Ars Technica, The American Cancer Society, The National Wildlife Federation and pretty well anyone who has ever eaten oatmeal.
Can a Thief Sue You for Defamation of Character?
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has announced that it will represent Inman and called the lawsuit “a blatant attempt to abuse the legal process to punish a critic.” Regardless of its merits or lack thereof, the suit could establish a precedent of whether copyright infringement accusations fall within the purview of the legal definition of defamation. A positive ruling could send a chill across the web, as site operators who find their content stolen and copied onto other sites might then face extensive legal entanglements should they even dare to publicly mention such a fact. This future legal scenario is somewhat tantamount to having your car stolen, watching the thief drive around town in it and not being able to tell anyone about it, lest the criminal sue you for defaming their character.
“Moar” to Come?
Carreon’s “I’m gonna sue the world” approach has let loose the hounds of the net, and he has been barraged with attacks to his website, email account and every other aspect of his online presence. The countless thousands of netizens who have taken up The Oatmeal’s banner to crucify Carreon are the latest members of the online armies that spontaneously rise from the cyberether to pillory any entity that in their exclusive determination has violated the unwritten, often anarchic, Wild West rules of the internet.
But if the internet can take sides, the over $150,000 donated to Inman in the very short time it has taken for this story to catch fire is proof enough that he is the chosen one. Inman’s intent is to donate the entirety of the proceeds to charity, a colossal substitution for FunnyJunk’s $20,000 demand for itself. What The Oatmeal has done is hand Carreon and his client back their own gauntlet, and it is brimming with everything the net can offer: swift insult for insult, perverse memetic tomfoolery, nigh instantaneous sponsorship and an absurd yet predictable punishment for those who take the vested power of the web for granted.