Comedy Copyright Battle Raises Seriously Funny Issues

In a strange developing story the FunnyJunk image site is threatening to sue popular humor site The Oatmeal. The war between the pair dates back a year when The Oatmeal accused FunnyJunk of profiting from its copyrighted images, but now FunnyJunk is demanding $20,000 to end a defamation lawsuit. The Oatmeal say they won't pay and have instead gathered huge support from fans, who in less than 24 hours have donated more than $90,000 to charity. Is there an interesting lesson in here for copyright holders?

Last year Matthew Inman, creator of humor site The Oatmeal, published a blog post where he offered his description of the business model operated by image index site, FunnyJunk.

1. Gather funny pictures from around the internet
2. Host them on FunnyJunk.com
3. Slather them in advertising
4. If someone claims copyright infringement, throw your hands up in the air and exclaim “It was our users who uploaded your photos! We had nothing to do with it! We’re innocent!”
5. Cash six figure advertising checks from other artist’s stolen material

Inman said that he’d previously approached FunnyJunk to remove content, which it partially did, but that countless images still remained. The owner of FunnyJunk responded by telling his users that The Oatmeal wanted to shut down their site, which Inman said he did not.

Considering the whole thing too much effort to continue with, Inman decided to let things be. However, now – a year later – it’s become clear that the owner of FunnyJunk has a much longer memory.

In a letter dated June 2 to The Oatmeal, lawyer Charles Carreon (the guy behind the sex.com lawsuit) expresses the displeasure of his client, FunnyJunk, and demands the immediate removal of the statements listed above.

Carreon says that the statements amount to a false accusation of willful copyright infringement when in fact FunnyJunk is a fully DMCA-compliant image host that not only removes infringing content on request, but also terminates the accounts of repeat infringers.

“By maliciously accusing FunnyJunk of criminal conduct to injure its business reputation you exposed yourself to a lawsuit for defamation per se, in which damages are presumed,” Carreron adds.

The complaint continues but the conclusion is familiar. If Inman gives FunnyJunk $20,000 the whole thing can be made to go away.

To prove his point that FunnyJunk aren’t playing fair, yesterday Inman posted a long list of URLs on FunnyJunk that still hosted The Oatmeal’s content, but hours later they had all been removed. He’s not amused and says he will not pay.

“You want ME to pay YOU $20,000 for hosting MY unlicensed comics on YOUR shitty website for the past 3 years?” Inman rants. “NO, i’ve got a better idea.”

“1. I’m going to try and raise $20,000 in donations. 2. I’m going to take a photo of the raised money. 3. I’m going to mail you that photo, along with this picture of your mom seducing a Kodiak bear. 4. I’m going to take that money and donate half of it to the National Wildlife Federation and half of it to the American Cancer Society.”

Oatmeal Bear

“I don’t want to spend the next year tied up in legal bullshit with you. I just want to make comics. Consider this my philanthropic, kind-spirited way of saying FUCK OFF.”

And then the fund-raiser began, just as Inman promised. The result is absolutely astonishing. At the time of writing more than 6,100 people have donated nearly $92,000. Of course the money is going to charity, and that’s a wonderful thing, but let’s just rewind here for a moment.

For the purposes of argument, let’s say that Inman’s comics were in fact the RIAA’s music and they hadn’t been posted on FunnyJunk, but had been posted on The Pirate Bay instead. No doubt about it, none of them would have been removed – ever.

Now, if the RIAA then accused Pirate Bay of being criminals (as FunnyJunk’s lawyer claimed that The Oatmeal did) and in turn Pirate Bay responded by suing the RIAA for defamation, the Internet masses would collectively cheer TPB on.

But when you look at the $92,000 donated in less than a day and the overwhelming support for Inman and The Oatmeal versus the bad publicity for FunnyJunk, it’s clear that at the flick of a switch an entire situation can be turned on its head.

There’s probably a number of messages in here for copyright holders, but perhaps one sticks out more than the others. In order to get support for your cause and get fans onside, people have to like you. If they do, magical things can happen.

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