Charles Carreon Sues Matthew Inman... And The Charities He's Raising Money For

from the wow dept

Update: The full details of Carreon's lawsuit are now public, and they are just as nonsensical as you'd expect.

The situation with Charles Carreon just keeps on progressing. The latest is that, according to a report from Courthouse News Service, Carreon has now not only sued Matthew Inman, but also IndieGoGo and the National Wildlife Federation and the American Cancer Society. Read on for the details...

If you've been away from the internet for the past week, this story started as an online dispute between Matthew Inman, creator of the webcomic The Oatmeal, and a site called Funnyjunk, which lets users post content to the site. About a year ago, Inman wrote a blog post complaining about Funnyjunk's reposting of his webcomics. As we've noted a few times, Inman's statements about Funnyjunk were overly aggressive -- and did mention "stealing" of his own work. He seemed to ignore that it was users who uploaded the content. However, while we disagree with Inman's original characterization of Funnyjunk and how it operates, it certainly did not reach the level of "defamation." Also, we appreciate that Inman chose not to sue, but rather to make use of the court of public opinion. In response, Funnyjunk lashed out, incorrectly stated that The Oatmeal wanted to sue him (when Inman very clearly stated he had no intention to sue) and also asked a bunch of Funnyjunk users to contact Inman.

Everything seemed to die down, until about a week ago, when lawyer Charles Carreon, representing Funnyjunk, sent a letter to Inman, threatening to sue Inman for the initial blog post, claiming that it was defamation and a Lanham Act (trademark) violation for false advertising. Neither claim makes much sense, and Inman responded with both an excellent letter from (occasional Techdirt contributor) Venkat Balasubramani, and Inman's now famous annotated letter, leading to an IndieGoGo campaign to raise $20,000 (the amount Carreon/Funnyjunk demanded from Inman) for two charities: The National Wildlife Federation & the American Cancer Society.

Following that, Carreon told MSNBC he intended to shut down the fundraisers, and then bizarrely accused Inman of "instigating security attacks" against his website. Finally, on Friday he told Forbes that he wasn't backing down and that there had to be "something" in the California code that he could sue Inman over.

Apparently he's found something. As reported by both Ken at Popehat and Kevin at Lowering the Bar, Courthouse News has a notice saying that Carreon has filed a lawsuit in the federal district of Northern California. And, as mentioned above, he doesn't just sue Inman, but also IndieGoGo and the two charities. Yes, the two charities. I'll repeat that again: Charles Carreon appears to be suing two of the most well known charities because Matthew Inman asked people to donate to them. Ken's summary -- based on what limited info is available via Courthouse News:
1. The lawsuit is captioned Charles Carreon v. Matthew Inman; IndieGogo Inc.; National Wildlife Federation; American Cancer Society; and Does [Does are as-of-yet-unnamed defendants], Case No. 4:12 cv 3112 DMR.

2. Charles Carreon appears as "attorney pro se," meaning "I am attorney but am representing only myself"....

3. CNS included the following description of the case, which is most likely drafted by CNS upon review of the complaint: "Trademark infringement and incitement to cyber-vandalism. Defendants Inman and IndieGogo are commercial fundraisers that failed to file disclosures or annual reports. Inman launched a Bear Love campaign, which purports to raise money for defendant charitable organizations, but was really designed to revile plaintiff and his client, Funnyjunk.com, and to initiate a campaign of "trolling" and cybervandalism against them, which has caused people to hack Inman's computer and falsely impersonate him. The campaign included obscenities, an obscene comics and a false accusation that FunnyJunk "stole a bunch of my comics and hosted them." Inman runs the comedy website The Oatmeal."
As Ken notes, the summary from CNS may be flawed. In fact, it clearly is, because it says "Inman's computer" was hacked, and I'm sure the complaint means Carreon's. So take it with a grain of salt until the actual filings appear on PACER or Carreon shares them with others. However, there would appear to be a bunch of problems with the filing if the other parts are accurate. Let's start with the big one: Carreon is filing for himself, representing himself. According to the report above, it does not appear that he is doing this representing Funnyjunk. That raises significant questions about what standing Carreon has alone, unless he's arguing that Carreon is Funnyjunk as well. Either way, Carreon seems to rely on things said about Funnyjunk, but is still filing on his own behalf. That's just weird.

Blogger Nick Nafpliotis called Carreon on Friday and posted an interview with him, which reveals a bit more behind Carreon's thinking on the legal front, and may explain why IndieGoGo and the charities are included in the lawsuit:
Carreon replied that under California law, you must be properly registered to conduct a fundraiser, something he is certain that Mathew Inman (operator of The Oatmeal) and IndieGoGo (the crowdfunding site being used The Oatmeal) are not.

"You might think of it as the 'Pseudo Santa' law," he explained. "Anybody can get a Santa suit. Then around Christmas time, you can probably make pretty good money wearing one outside of Macy's, ringing a bell, and saying you'll give the money to the Salvation Army. But you can't do that."

Carreon went on to say that he had been in contact with the American Cancer Society and the National Wildlife Federation and confirmed that Indiegogo had not executed the proper fundraiser paperwork. He explained that this missing documentation gives a sponsoring organization the power to shut down a campaign that may bring a charity itself into disrepute or injure its goodwill...or might be "using a charity as a human shield for a slander campaign inciting people to cyber vandalism," Carreon added.
Even given all of that, I'm not sure why IndieGoGo, NWF or ACS were included. Even if we assume that Carreon is correct that this is some sort of "illegal" fundraiser, it seems like IndieGoGo should be protected under Section 230 of the CDA. Amusingly, since Carreon continually insists that Funnyjunk is protected under the DMCA's safe harbors, you would think he would be up on the 230 safe harbors as well. Separately, again, even assuming that Carreon's analysis is correct, I'm not sure why that gives him standing to sue. Others (the charities? the government?) would seem like more reasonable entities who could bring a case. But Carreon?

IndieGoGo has told others that Carreon did, indeed, request it take down Inman's fundraising effort, and it turned him down, but (unlike the DMCA safe harbors), that's not that big of a deal. There's no "takedown" requirement to retain immunity in Section 230.

Separately, I can't see where there's a trademark claim. Carreon has indicated that he has trademarked his name, but unless there's something in the filing that shows something completely different than what's currently been made public, I can't see how there's any trademark issue at all. Inman's statements may have mocked Carreon, but that's not trademark infringement. You'd have to be using the name in commerce in a manner that caused a likelihood of confusion in that people would somehow believe that Carreon supported Inman's actions. That is difficult to believe no matter how you look at this.

We'll wait to see what's in the actual filing, but from what's already been said, this seems like a massive uphill battle, and one not made any better by the fact that he appears to be suing two famous charities in the process.

Two other points:
  1. In that interview with Nafpliotis, Carreon makes some odd justifications for why he thinks it's okay to blame Inman for various attacks on his site (and a fake Twitter account). He basically says that because the comics that Inman draws are "dehumanizing," it's fair to assume that the attacks are because of that -- and (I'm not joking) compares it to Disney drawing cartoons that mocked Japanese people leading to Truman dropping the bomb on Japan:
    "It might not have seemed very dehumanizing when Walt Disney made Japanese people look silly with buck teeth and big glasses who could not pronounce their 'R's or their 'L's. But it was dehumanizing, and the purpose was to direct evil intentions against them, which ultimately resulted in the only nuclear holocaust that ever occurred in the history of humanity. I don't think Truman would have ever done that if we hadn't so dehumanized the enemy."

    "When you dehumanize someone, that is the first step to inciting people. The emails that I've gotten...many of them wish me death or wish for the complete collapse of my law practice...and they are virtually all uninformed."
    If people are sending Carreon nasty emails, that's a pretty stupid thing to do, but it's silly to blame Inman for it.

    Carreon also hints that Inman might be responsible for someone setting up a fake Twitter account in his name which had some "offensive statements." His evidence that Inman was responsible? At the same time that the fake account tweeted some stuff, Inman posted a tweet mocking Carreon in somewhat offensive terms. That tweet did not link to or reference the fake account, but according to Carreon: "I don't know if that's coincidence. Why was he on twitter at the same time the impersonator was? I don't know."

    We've suggested in the past that Carreon might want to learn a bit more about how the internet works. And here's one reason why: many people who use Twitter are pretty much always on Twitter. There's nothing surprising or odd about being on Twitter all the time. Inman's tweet indicates that he uses TweetDeck, one of (if not) the most popular Twitter applications, which you leave running all the time and thus has you "on Twitter" basically all the time.

  2. As most people know, you will find perhaps no person around who is more vehement in saying that copyright infringement is not theft. I have argued that at length for years. Copyright infringement is not theft. It's not theft, it's not stealing. It's just not. That said, in no way do I think that someone who discovers that their work has been infringed and then refers to it as "theft" or "stealing" has "defamed" someone else. That's just crazy. It's an inaccurate portrayal, but one that is used colloquially all too frequently. To rise to the level of defamation would be something else entirely. Of course, it does not appear from the description that defamation is even a consideration here, since the lawsuit is from Carreon not Funnyjunk.
Lastly, Inman here has definitely won in the court of public opinion, and Carreon's legal efforts aren't doing him any favors in that battle -- by just not knowing when to stop digging (and almost creating a Godwin's law reference).

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  1. icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 18 Jun 2012 @ 7:57am

    Re: Re: FunnyJunk

    No the complaint is all about how Inman is responsible for other parties actions resulting from the threat letter.
    Hes totally on his own and its scary.

    There are lawyers out there who behave this way, they make headlines and then try to sue the sites who cover the story. They make up imaginary laws and interpret laws to say what they want them to say... its scary but they exist.

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