The Oatmeal v. Funnyjunk: How The Court Of Public Opinion Beats The Court Of Baseless Legal Threats
from the funny-cause-it's-true dept
About a year ago, Matthew Inman wrote a short article highlighting Funnyjunk, one of the many image aggregating sites on the internet. This article, titled What should I do about FunnyJunk.com? was a short exploration of his impression of the site and some of the complaints he had about it. Primary among them was that the site hosted copies of his comics without attribution or links back to his site. Other than that, his complaints revolved around the shear ugliness of the site (they still have not updated it). He ended that exploration with a level-headed look at the big picture.
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. I know that if FunnyJunk disappeared fifty other clones would pop up to take its place overnight, but I felt I had to say something about what they’re doing.
No legal threats. No claims that this site was destroying his business. Just a recognition of the issues and a call for a discussion about it with Funnyjunk. Funnyjunk then responded with a rather hyperbolic claim that The Oatmeal was going to sue the site and have it shut down. Clearly not the case. Matthew had thought that was the end of the issue. Until recently.
Yesterday, Matthew wrote on his blog that Funnyjunk has sent him legal papers threatening the Oatmeal with a defamation suit. The letter makes a wide array of claims, some correct and some just outright weird. Matthew does a fairly good job of taking apart each of the claims against The Oatmeal. So I will let you read through those on your own. Our interests lie, rather, in some of the finer points of this dispute.
Funnyjunk, as a user generated content site, is probably protected by the DMCA, something it goes through great pains in its legal letter to explain. Much like Imgur or Youtube, as long as it complies with the DMCA (i.e., has a registered agent, properly responds to takedowns, does not “induce” infringement), it is likely protected. However, that really isn’t at issue here. No one but Funnyjunk has brought up the DMCA or talked about lawsuits.
Instead, I think it is time to hearken back to a few years ago when we talked about something similar happening in the comedy business. The idea is that social mores and rules can result in punishment of what society feels is unfair or unethical. So although Funnyjunk is working within the bounds of current law, it was still perceived as doing something unethical and the community responded appropriately. Much the same way the comedian who copied his jokes was shunned by the community.
Which leads us to one of the key complaints made by Funnyjunk, that Matthew’s blog post “injured Funnyjunk in its trade, business or profession.” That is most likely true considering the power of enforcement through social norms. The Oatmeal has a very strong following around the internet (274,924 followers on Twitter, nearly 600,000 on Facebook). So of course those people would be upset when Matthew is upset and they would probably respond in kind (it helps when Matthew actually asks his fans to respond). This is completely normal. But telling people your opinion as to why you dislike a particular site, and letting them make their own decision about it isn’t illegal. It’s kind of the crux of how our system of free expression works.
Perhaps most interesting of all, Matthew has also taken this public shaming of Funnyjunk to a new level. In response to this legal threat demanding $20,000, Matthew has decided to instead raise that money and donate it to charity. He has done this because he feels that Funnyjunk’s claim of defamation has no merit and he does not want to deal with a lawsuit over the next year. As a result of this very public slap in the face, The Oatmeal raised $20,000 in 64 minutes. It has raised over $100,000 at the time of this writing. None of which is going to Funnyjunk.
In the end, it seems like a great lesson from pretty much every direction. It’s an example of where you don’t need to rely on laws to make things right — and, in fact, the one party who tried to rely on laws (by being way way way way too overaggressive) gets “punished” in the court of public opinion instead. Seems like a good solution all around… though we haven’t yet seen how Funkyjunk will respond. If they’re smart, they’ll either apologize (very very publicly) or just shut up about all of this.