A Brief Primer on Carreon v. Inman (the Oatmeal charity case)

I’ve decided to start blogging again in large part because of the Carreon v. Inman, et al case, which hits upon two of my favorite legal subjects: free speech and the internet. If you’re unfamiliar with it, here’s a brief primer on it. If you’re a rubber-necker already well-acquainted with this trainwreck, I’ll be posting my own thoughts shortly, starting with the sexy First Amendment issues and saving the boring, tech stuff for last.

Matthew Inman writes, draws, and manages The Oatmeal, an irreverent (yet cerebral) humor website featuring comics that would make Jim Davis blush. Inman is known to playfully lampoons his critics, so it comes as no surprise that when he received an audacious demand from an attorney, Inman upped the ante.

The saga starts almost a year ago, when Inman discovered that hundreds of his comics (and comics by many other internet artists) had been posted to Funnyjunk, a site which lets users post funny images. Judging that an email to FunnyJunk listing the infringing posts probably wouldn’t inspire FunnyJunk to better police the content its users were posting, Inman went public, criticizing FunnyJunk as having “practically stolen” his entire site. Inman’s assumption bore fruit, as FunnyJunk removed some of the Oatmeal comics, but left a great deal more on the site.

Almost a year later, Inman received a letter from Charles Carreon, a self-styled ‘internet’ attorney famous for litigating ownership of the Sex.com domain name. FunnyJunk, through Carreon. complained that Inman’s comments had defamed the website and demanded a settlement of $20,000 to avoid a lawsuit.

Inman, in due course, opted to go public with the demand letter, as many internet sites do. After removing Carreon’s contact information and linking to his Wikipedia article (rather than his personal website), Inman lambasted the letter With his trademark sarcastic flair. Rather than pay the $20,000 demanded, Inman challenged his readers to raise that amount for the National Wildlife Foundation and the American Cancer Society, and promised his readers that he would send a photo of the money to FunnyJunk along with a picture of FunnyJunk’s mother attempting to seduce a Kodiak bear.

The internet erupted. Inman’s readers raised the $20,000 in mere hours, and then some. When the fundraiser closes today, it will have raised more than $215,000, which Inman has pledged to give to the NWF and ACS, as well as other potential charitable causes.

Charles Carreon, FunnyJunk’s lawyer, was understandably less than pleased that his demand letter had been mocked. He took offense to Inman’s crude drawing, depicting an obese woman unsuccessfully attempting to seduce a disinterested bear, interpreting it as depicting his own mother. How he came to this conclusion is a head-scratcher: Inman’s letter was addressed to FunnyJunk, referred to Carreon as “your lawyer” and said the drawing was of “your” mother. On the fundraiser page, Inman wrote of his plan: “Instead of mailing the owner of FunnyJunk the money, I’m going to send the above drawing of his mother.”

Carreon was also upset that someone had started a fake Twitter account using his name (which he had trademarked), and was tweeting fairly ridiculous things and threatening ridiculous lawsuits against other Twitter users. Some got the joke, some didn’t. Other internet malcontents signed Carreon’s email address up for porn sites or tried unsuccessfully to order pizza to his house. Carreon claimed the email address was secret and that he only used in court filings — but it turns out that Carreon himself used that address in the masthead of a periodical/newspaper he used to publish and had used it as the contact information on his blog. Carreon also thought his website was being hacked. More on this later.

So Carreon, a hammer in search of a nail, went off to find a law that might give him some recourse against Inman, telling one interviewer that “California code is just so long, but there’s something in there about this.” This came after Carreon told MSNBC he was trying to get the fundraiser shut down.

And then Carreon found his nail. After donating to Inman’s fundraiser (either to create legal standing or to claim some pretense of having a good faith interest in seeing that the money goes to the charities), Carreon filed a Federal lawsuit in California, naming Inman, IndieGoGo, and the National Wildlife Foundation and American Cancer Society as defendants. He alleges that Inman and IndieGoGo are “commercial fundraisers” in violation of Cal. Gov’t Code § 12599 and that the NWF and ACS are complicit because they haven’t signed a contract with Inman and IndieGoGo, and because they sat silently by while a fictional mother was lampooned in a cartoon. Carreon, via Twitter, told me that the charities have no need to concern themselves with the costs of defending against the lawsuit, as “ACS and NWF don’t need lawyers. They just stand there and get the money.”

Meanwhile, Carreon’s suit also seeks to hold the Twitter imposters liable for trademark infringement, and he has promised to subpoena Twitter and news website Ars Technica to learn the identity of the imposter.

For a devastating takedown of Carreon’s initial complaint, read Ken at Popehat’s initial analysis.

Carreon claims that his motive in dragging Inman and company into a Federal court in another state isn’t to seek retribution, but to ensure that the donations reach the NWF and ACS. At the same time, Carreon was writing what can only loosely be described as a poem, dedicated to Inman, saying (tongue-in-cheek) Inman committed “treason / Against decency and sanity” and again inferring that the comic depicted Carreon’s mother.

Carreon has since amended his Complaint. More on this in later posts.

Meanwhile, Carreon’s wife, Tara, has taken up the cause of her husband — which is understandable, as she’s married to the guy. In doing so, she crossed a line, threatening (jokingly, she assures us) one of Charles’ critics with a subpoena to prove that he’s a ‘media mole’. If that were a joke, the next threat wasn’t: Carreon’s wife threatened another critic with being named a defendant in Carreon’s lawsuit.

So there you have it — the basic, sordid tale of Carreon v. Oatmeal and friends. If you want to satisfy your curiosity further, Popehat’s series of posts is informative, as are Lowering the Bar’s analysis of the First Amended Complaint and synopsis of the applicable ethical rules.

Stay tuned. I’ll update this post to include details I missed later on.

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