Local cartoonist Matthew Inman, creator of the outrageously popular online comic The Oatmeal, was making sushi with his girlfriend and a couple of friends in his Fremont apartment on June 3 when someone knocked on the door. He answered to find a smiling but slightly nervous courier in jeans who gave him an envelope.
As he walked back up the stairs to his friends, Inman read a letter from Charles Carreon, a lawyer representing FunnyJunk.com. This was the first time Inman had thought about FunnyJunk since about a year ago, when Inman had found dozens of his Oatmeal comics on FunnyJunk's site. The users who posted them (not the site administrator) often stripped attribution from the comics. Infuriated, Inman had posted a comic complaining that FunnyJunk users were posting his comics without permission.
FunnyJunk had also e-mailed its users saying that The Oatmeal was going to sue (according to records that Inman would later post on his website). This unleashed a flying monkey army of FunnyJunk users who hammered Inman's Facebook page with insults. Inman's online response: "Your admin is a moron who chooses his words about as carefully as a mule chooses where to take a shit."
And there was where Inman left it a year ago—until he got the letter.
In his letter threatening the lawsuit, Carreon said that the Oatmeal comic amounted to defamation, demanded that Inman remove all references to FunnyJunk on his site, and requested $20,000 to avoid a lawsuit.
"You want ME to pay YOU $20,000 for hosting MY unlicensed comics on YOUR shitty website for the past three years?" Inman wrote on his website.
Inman's lawyer advised him to just call Carreon and straighten it out, but he didn't. "I figured I would have more of a chance if I had the public on my side," Inman says. So he posted a drawing that he said depicted the FunnyJunk administrator's mother seducing a Kodiak bear. Then he launched a campaign on crowdfunding website Indiegogo to raise the $20,000. But instead of paying FunnyJunk, Inman said he would give the $20,000 to the National Wildlife Federation and the American Cancer Society. "Consider this my kind, philanthropic way of saying 'Fuck off,'" he wrote.
Inman likes to color outside the lines. His comic, started in 2009, is a simply drawn, surreal affair. A published anthology is called 5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth. His 4.6 million readers like his quirky style. They donated the $20,000 within 64 minutes—and kept going. As of earlier this week, the amount raised was $198,000.
FunnyJunk declined an interview request, but Carreon agreed to be interviewed. He called the charity campaign deceptive. "The charity is used as a foil," he told me on the phone, arguing that there's nothing to stop Inman from pocketing the proceeds. "This is like having a bum put on an outfit outside the grocery store and saying that he's collecting money for the Salvation Army." For his part, Inman maintains that every penny will go to charity.
Then on Friday, June 15, Carreon personally sued Inman in a US District Court in California for "incitement to cybervandalism," as well as violating charitable fundraising rules in California. The lawsuit also named Indiegogo and both of the charities. Inman shouldn't be allowed to raise funds for the charities, the lawsuit complains, because he isn't qualified, because he did not enter into a written agreement with the charities, and because Inman is disparaging the good name of both charities by his use of "false and deceptive statements and insinuations of bestiality on the part of the Plaintiff and the client's 'mother.'" Carreon alleges Inman is using the charities as "a 'human shield' for his assault" on Carreon and FunnyJunk, and he wants the proceeds held in a charitable trust and wants damages from Inman and Indiegogo, calling their profits "ill-gotten."
Inman responded by pulling up the drawbridge. He told me that his lawyer advised him not to give any more interviews.
Ironically, the threat of the first lawsuit never materialized. Carreon admits he was misinformed: Before demanding the $20,000, which was based on FunnyJunk's "estimate of advertising losses sustained due to the taint of being accused of engaging in willful copyright infringement," Carreon was told that all Oatmeal comics had been taken off the FunnyJunk site, even though they hadn't. "If I had known... no demand would have gone out," he says.
After all of this, Carreon says his inbox has been deluged with death threats and hate mail. So to try and calm the waters, Inman posted a request to "stop harassing Carreon. Be lawful and civil in your interactions with him." Inman also intends to post a comic asking his meme-soaked readers to lay off Carreon.
Until last Friday, I could see where Carreon was coming from. He had "his dick in a hornet's nest," as Inman put it, and his unwillingness to remove it seemed inept at worst. But the lawsuit filed last Friday strikes me as needlessly incendiary—not just taking on The Oatmeal, but taking on a wildly successful charity campaign to protect wildlife and fight cancer. The guy simply doesn't know when to quit.
What's really sad is that a short phone call early on in this whole affair could have prevented it. Mind you, it would also have stopped Inman from raising $198,000 and generating a whole bunch of new traffic for his website.