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Menaced cartoonist raises $60,000 for copywrong

Ignorant or cynical?

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Comment A popular internet cartoonist has been served a demand for $20,000 after he failed to use the DMCA to defend his rights.

Website FunnyJunk republished several strips from The Oatmeal, a comic drawn by Matthew Inman, in a clear cut case of copyright infringement. But Inman is a creature of nerd web culture, where using the quick and easy takedown provision of the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act is considered a taboo. Without the DMCA, Inman found himself in a knife fight armed with just a stick of celery.

Duly emboldened, the infringing website thumbed its nose at Inman. It refused to take down the strips, insulted him, and even upped the stakes with a defamation suit against him, claiming $20,000 in damages. Inman launched an appeal promising he'll give the money to charity. By rousing the righteous mobocracy of Reddit, this has already exceeded its target.

Which is fine and dandy - but completely unnecessary, if only Inman had been copy-savvy. Introduced in 1998, the DMCA's takedown provision gives the individual a quick and easy route to justice. In return for not having to proactively police their networks for infringement, service providers were obliged to respond promptly to notifications of infringement.

The copyright holder does not need to hire a lawyer, but merely fill out an online form. It's a threat with real teeth, since web hosting companies will rapidly pull a site off the internet, rather than face the consequential liabilities. For isolated infringement cases like this, it has been highly effective.

However, years of indoctrination, with their roots in early-1990s utopianism, have left many techies believing they have no redress against copyright infringement, and that even seeking out justice is distasteful. Google encourages this by using intimidation: on receiving a DMCA takedown it complies but publishes the complaint, exposing the requester to the Anonymous hate-mob.

(Google claims to do this "in accordance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)" - an outright lie.)

Inman's inaction was applauded by some. According to CBC Canada's John Bowman: "The cartoonist responded using the best ammunition available to him. Instant, brutal and sustained humiliation."

Actually, no. Inman didn't use the ammunition available to him at all - he simply decided to play the victim. Whether he did so through naivety, ignorance, or cynicism, it is impossible, to say.

Tech website Arse Technica blew further confusion over the story, finding a lawyer to claim that, "lots of independent creators like Matthew Inman are faced with situations where neither the law nor what is actually happening is entirely clear."

What's pretty clear to many independent creators, more savvy than Inman but lacking Hollywood's expensive legal backup, is that they quickly discover that the DMCA is ineffective against serial infringement, and sending out the takedowns becomes a full-time job.

Here's an indie film-maker's experience of the DMCA.

When the Act was passed in 1998 no internet company had made a profit, few had any revenue, and large media companies would gladly have swatted out the new network like a fly. The lawmakers wanted give the new service providers the chance to build new content markets.

But times change: Google alone earns more revenue than the entire music industry, and we're still waiting for those markets. It's hard to argue the law has kept pace with reality or serves society's creators. ®

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