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FunnyJunk Threatens to Sue ‘The Oatmeal,’ ‘The Oatmeal’ Raises Money For Cancer Research and Bears

When kindergarten teachers instruct their pupils on the virtues of sharing, they’ll need to add a few extra points to their lessons for sharing online. Did you properly attribute the item you shared? Did you provide a link back to the original owner of that shiny new comic? Oh, and you probably shouldn’t go suing cartoonists for accusing you of being a bad sharer — especially when you were being a bad sharer.

The owners of the image hosting service FunnyJunk would do well to remember that last lesson. After hosting dozens of pilfered webcomics and getting called out on it by The Oatmeal‘s Matthew Inman, FunnyJunk has threatened to sue Inman, demanding that he pay $20,000 to avoid a lawsuit. With a bit of public relations magic, Inman has spun that threat around, raising thousands of dollars for charity in a move that has snowballed into massive goodwill for Inman and perhaps irreparable damage to FunnyJunk and their lawyer’s reputation.To understand the whole FunnyJunk vs. The Oatmeal mess, we need to go back in time, to the year 2011. It was a more innocent time, before lawyers and amorous bears entered the fray. Matthew Inman, creator of the link-bait webcomic The Oatmeal wrote a blog post about the image hosting service FunnyJunk. Several FunnyJunk users had uploaded Inman’s comics, in their entirety, to FunnyJunk, often going so far as to crop out the attribution back to The Oatmeal‘s website. Inman noted that many other comics had suffered the same fate, from fellow webcomics like Dinosaur Comics and Perry Bible Fellowship to syndicated comics like FoxTrot and Dilbert. In response, FunnyJunk did remove many of the infringing comics from their site, and while some of his unattributed comics remained, Inman figured that the conflict was more or less over.

He thought wrong.

On June 2, Charles Carreon, a cyberspace lawyer best known for successfully litigated the Sex.com case, sent Inman a letter on FunnyJunk’s behalf. In the letter, Carreon references Inman’s original blog post about FunnyJunk, claims it is a false statement and then states that since the blog post was written in the present tense at the time, and is still written in the present tense (which is to say, Inman didn’t edit the post after FunnyJunk removed many of the offending images), it appears to be the current state of affairs. Carreon threatened to file suit against Inman under the Lanham Trademark Act (which provides for offenses that are similar to defamation but concern false statements made about company trademarks rather than human individuals), demanding that Inman remove all references to FunnyJunk on his website and send Carreon a check for $20,000.

Now, I can only guess at what happened here. The folks who FunnyJunk were probably upset that anytime you searched “FunnyJunk” on Google, a link to Inman’s post popped up on the front page. So they approached a lawyer–a famous lawyer, at that–to see what their options were. Sadly, said lawyer was apparently unfamiliar with the “Streisand Effect,” in which one’s attempts to suppress content result in drawing more attention to it. Given Inman’s propensity for very publicly responding to threats and criticism, this letter was a bomb that could have only exploded in FunnyJunk’s faces, at least from a public relations perspective.

Not only did Inman declare Carreon’s claims ludicrous (though his language was much more colorful), he claimed that, at the time he received the letter, FunnyJunk still hosted hundreds of images that were, in fact, comics taken from The Oatmeal. (FunnyJunk has since removed those images.) Beyond that, Inman decided to lift his middle finger extra high with a charitable act: Instead of paying $20,000 to Carreon, he would raise $20,000 through the crowdfunding site IndieGoGo, take a picture of the money, send the photo to Carreon along with a crude drawing of FunnyJunk’s mother attempting to seduce a Kodiak bear, and then split the money between the National Wildlife Federation and the American Cancer Society.

Suddenly, a man whose comic title I’ve seen most often preceded by the words “I can’t say that I’m a fan of” has transformed himself into an Internet folk hero, riding high on a tide of crowdfunded dollars and bear-love. I can’t say I approve of Inman dragging FunnyJunk’s (hopefully non-existant) mother into all this; giving birth to the site aside, she might be a perfectly lovely woman with appropriate feelings toward bears. But Inman has hit on the trifecta of righteous anger, charity and “Yo Mama” jokes, and the response has been huge. After roughly an hour, he passed the $20,000 mark, and with 14 days left on the campaign, he’s raised more than $150,000.

Carreon, for his part, is obligingly playing the villain of the piece. His response to Inman’s clever PR stunt? He told MSNBC (via Robot 6) that he has contacted IndieGoGo, asking them to put a stop to the campaign. Yes, Carreon is now trying to prevent charities–including a cancer charity–from receiving tens of thousands of dollars. Now when you search for “FunnyJunk” on Google, all you see is Forbes and the Guardian praising Inman’s good turn, legal blogs mocking Carreon and Wil Wheaton telling FunnyJunk, “Don’t be a dick.” If FunnyJunk was hoping to preserve their reputation, they hired the wrong lawyer. Meanwhile, Carreon has removed his contact information from his website, because if Inman’s supporters can be convinced to part with that much money, you can only imagine the terrible words they have for Carreon.

There is a larger discussion to be had about what makes for appropriate and inappropriate sharing online. Inman’s major complaints were the sheer number of his comics hosted on FunnyJunk, that they were often unattributed and that FunnyJunk makes money off of advertising. But the line isn’t always so clear. Still, we should hope that all such missteps result in money going to cancer research and bears.

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