Monday, June 18, 2012

Why we should care about The Oatmeal

Last week The Oatmeal, one of my favorite websites, came under attack for no good reason. Yes, there were reasons, but none of them were good. In fact, I'd call these reasons nefarious. (Because I like that word and rarely get to use it in a sentence.) This is something that we all should care about, especially if you, like me, happen to post things online.

Here's the simplest breakdown of events I can manage. Last year Matthew Inman, the writer and creater of the fantastic The Oatmeal webcomic, was upset that another website (no, I'm not linking to them, they don't deserve the traffic) was uploading his work without permission. He made a blog post about it, calling attention to the unethical practice. FunnyJunk did not have permission to host the material and yet was profiting from it. This happens to a lot of people who post their material online: others will steal it and use it on their own sites.

Funnyjunk took down some of the offending (stolen) comics but left plenty more up. Then a year later, Inman got a letter from FunnyJunk's lawyer. The letter ordered him to remove the blog post (rightfully) calling FunnyJunk a den of thieves and demanded he pay them $20,000 or else be sued.

Inman declined to be intimidated. Instead, he posted the letter for all to see, made snarky comments, and then stated categorically that he was not going to pay twenty grand to a website who stole from him. He was not going to pay one penny. Instead, he was going to solicit $20,000 in donations to charity, and instead of giving FunnyJunk the money, he would take a picture of the cash, send them a picture of the cash (along with a creative illustration of a bear) and send the money to two charities, splitting it between the National Wildlife Federation and the American Cancer Society.

So far, this is a pretty awesome response. Not only is he refusing to give in to bullying of the highest order, not only is he refusing to surrender his God-given right to call out people who wrong him, not only is he setting an example that hopefully others will follow when facing similar frivolous threats, he's raising money for charity. As of this writing, he's raised almost ten times that amount, close to two-hundred thousand dollars.

The lawyer's response? He's suing the charities. No, really. That's what he's doing.

Apparently the lawyer, Charles Carreon, is not pleased with The Oatmeal's response. He's not pleased that his extortion attempt has backfired hilariously. He's not pleased that now people know who he is and are using his name as a pejorative. His reputation is crumbling around him. So he's lashing out at the charities who will benefit from this. Somehow, he thinks this will make it all better.

You might be reading this and thinking this is just some legal pissing contest between two  websites. It's more than that, it affects everyone who ever has or ever will post something online. It affects everyone who has or ever will point the finger at wrongdoing or injustice and try to call attention to it, knowing that sunlight is the best disinfectant. It affects anyone who believes in free speech.

We, as Americans, have a right to make our voices heard. We have a right to point out what we see as wrong. We have a right to not just sit there and take it but make a racket. This is protected speech, what our Founding Fathers fought and died for. If I feel someone has wronged me, I have the right to speak about it and encourage others to speak about it. 

That's the principle this legal action threatens. It doesn't matter that such a lawsuit is the definition of frivolous. It's still stressful, expensive, and time consuming to deal with. Even if you win, the damage is done. Fortunately the internet has rallied around The Oatmeal and they are getting all sorts of pro-bono help. Inman is going to be fine. But what about the next time and the time after that?

This is why we need to pay attention to this. It is for this very reason everyone should know the names FunnyJunk and Charles Carreon. We need to know this story as precedent for the next time it happens. And furthermore, they need to know that we know this story.

The best way to handle this and every other frivolous legal threat is to use their own tactics against them. The reason FunnyJunk demanded the money was because they wanted The Oatmeal to believe that fighting this frivolous lawsuit isn't worth it. That paying them off is better than the alternative.

Instead, Inman decided to to set a new precedent, one that we can learn from. We need to let these bullies know that sending these threats isn't worth it. That if they try to extort money, we're going to fight back. We're not going to whip out our checkbooks to make it go away, we're going to rally the troops, bring this out into the open, and make it much more costly to them.

The reason this kind of threat is a common legal tactic is that it works. People are so afraid that they are willing to shell out all this money to make it go away. But that won't help you in the long run. You give in to one bully and ten more see a victim ripe for the picking. That's we all need to band together each time this happens. We need to let these parasites know that it is not worth their while to bully us. There are more of us than there are of them, and it will cost them a lot more than they realize.

Charles Carreon really should have watched the movie A Bug's Life. He would have realized that when the ants (us) band together, they are way more powerful than the grasshoppers (him). That's what's happening right now, the ants are refusing to give in to the grasshoppers.

Most sane lawyers are all about the cost-benefit analysis. When they realize that there's not an easy payout, when they do the math and see that pursuing this legal matter won't work in their favor, they are no longer interested. If the defendant won't pay up, if the defendant would rather spend the money going to court (and win) rather than pay an extortion fee, then there's no incentive to continue.

One of my favorite websites is, and a while back the site's owner, Drew Curtis, was sued by a patent troll. Drew refused to give the patent troll a dime and instead fought back. Long story short, he "settled" for nothing, refused to give them anything, and the matter was dropped. You can hear all about it in his TED talk.

That's what we've got to do. We need to stop giving in and let these lawyers know that there's no money in it for them. We need to create a disincentive so terrible that they think twice before trying to bully, extort, or blackmail. And we all need to band together to support those who are victimized by such bully tactics, because if we don't stand with them, who will stand with us?

If you would like to support the cause and donate to the BearLove Good Cancer Bad charity, you can do so here.

If you want to help in any other way, spread the word. Make this the most famous frivolous lawsuit in the country. But whatever you do, don't engage in illegal or harassing activities. Some have already done so, and that's exactly the wrong thing to do. I don't encourage nor do I condone such activities.

What we should do is bring this to light and see it resolved in the courts of law and public opinion. That's how we win.

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