Thursday 28 June 2012

Funny junk not so amusing for some

(c) Matthew Inman
The Oatmeal ( is a popular destination for fans of online humour, created and run by illustrator Matthew Inman. All well and good, but its now embroiled in a massive and very public spat with another website called, over alleged copyright infringement by the latter, and indeed now it seems the lawyer for Funnyjunk, one Charles Carreon, has joined in personally. 

The whole debacle is causing a massive debate (and some amusement) in cyberspace and its interesting to see those perhaps more usually inclined to be on the 'liberal' side when it comes to online copyright infringement now taking a more pragmatic line. So what's happended? 

Well initally Inman noticed that that large quantities of his illustrations and comics from The Oatmeal were appearing on is "a sort of YouTube for funny pictures and artwork". Inman wrote on his blog about the problem (here) asking his readers what he should do about it, claiming that the FunnyJunk site was making “six figure advertising checks from other artist’s stolen material” while hiding behind the takedown provisions in the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act by claiming (Inman's words) "It was our users who uploaded your photos! We had nothing to do with it! We're innocent!". Inman decided to  send a simple cease and desist letter. 

Now the story starts to get bizzare (but strangely predictable in the angry world of cyberspace where manners, politeness and common sense are at a premium). The owner of FunnyJunk sent a message to all of his users telling them (wrongly) that Inman was attempting to have his site shut down but FunnyJunk did remove all posts with  “The Oatmeal” in the title - some but by no means all of the infringing material as much did not contain a direct reference. A DCMA takedown? Maybe.  Inman in the meantime found himself bombarded with abuse from users of FunnyJunk - from online hero to online zero in a matter of hours.. It's a strange old world out there in the ether.

The next development was when Inman published a letter he’d received from FunnyJunk's lawyer (Carreon) which accused Inman of defamation for previous postings about, and demanded that he remove all mention of the website from The and hand over $20,000 in damages to avoid further action being taken. Now I can let the Electronic Frontiers Foundation (who are supporting Inman and The Oatmeal) take up the story who explain the Inman then decided to raise funds and ridicule FunnyJunk:  "Inman started his fundraiser as part of his criticism of the frivolous legal threats he received from the website FunnyJunk. Rather than pay the $20k demanded, Inman was going to raise money and send a photo of the money to FunnyJunk, but send the money to (two) charities" instead saying he would send the photo to Carreon “along with this picture of your mom seducing a Kodiak bear” (see above) and then donate half the money to The National Wildlife Federation and the other half to The American Cancer Society.The fundraiser raised $220,024.00 - some 11 times the original goal of $20k. 

This seems to have provoked Carreon ever more, and according to the EFF he then "filed a lawsuit on his own behalf, suing Inman, the two charities, the online fundraising platform Indiegogo, 100 unidentified John Does, and even the California Attorney General, asserting trademark infringement, cybervandalism, and false advertising and the EFF report that Carreon is seeking to take control over the fundraiser from Inman, and place the money in a trust. 

Arts Technica add "The astonishingly tenacious Arizona attorney Charles Carreon, apparently not satisfied with his original filing last week, has now amended his case against Matthew Inman et al. to now include California State Attorney General Kamala Harris" adding "The updated Monday filing is the latest chapter in an "increasingly ridiculous legal case" involving an online intellectual property dispute. Neither Carreon, Harris, nor any of the other defendants (except for Ars commenter "Modelista") responded immediately to our [Arts Technica] request for comment. The move to include California’s top law enforcement officer may be a tactic to compel Harris to act on Carreon’s accusations of charitable fundraising fraud as carried out by Inman and IndieGoGo." 

Amusing or not,  one thing this case does do is highlight the increasing dissatisfaction amongst many content owners, artists, performers and others about the 'safe harbour' provisions of the USA's Digital Millennium Copyright Act – and whether or not safe harbour is really now appropriate in a world where cut and paste, uploading and file sharing are just so easy - and where user generated content can provide rich rewards for site owners - even where content is infringing. The fact that the DCMA provisions are little more than a decade old just adds to my feeling that change on the web is accelerating,  and accelerating at an ever increasing rate. There is some very pithy comment from the CMU on the DCMA  here.  and


Ian said...

On what basis have you reproduced Mr Inman's cartoon in this blog?

Andy J said...

@ Ian. I'm sure Jeremy is perfectly able to answer for himself, but at a guess the answer is section 30 of CDPA 1988

Ben said...

Its Ben actually Andy, but indeed, your guess is correct! Ian, thanks for your comment: quite apart from the fact that Mr Inman put the picture into the public domain himself as far as I can tell, if this isn't S30 fair dealing (or fair use in the USA) I really wouldn't know what was. It's material to this news story, not least as the illustration is potentially offensive, and its current. I even added a (C) notice from the widely available web images which appear free of such. Ben.

Ben said...

Update: Charles Carreon has now dropped his lawsuit - the voluntary dismissal is here

And a final comment from The Oatmeal here