As regular readers know, I’ve twice been sued for defamation over my reporting and opinions from this blog.
When Joseph Rakofsky sued me (and so many others) for reporting on his dreadful attempt to defend a murder case in his first ever trial, TechDirt was there to shout in our defense.
When Dr. Michael Katz sued me for reporting that a Queens judge repeatedly called him a liar in open court, TechDirt was once again there to scream from the rooftops.
Now it’s my turn to holler for TechDirt, as it’s very survival may hinge upon raising funds needed to defend itself from a defamation claim.
TechDirt, which gets 1.5M visitors a month, does original reporting and commentary about changes in government policy, technology and legal issues.
The blog is well written, well-researched, with just the right amount of snark to make reading that’s both enjoyable and informed even if the subject isn’t one you’d normally read.
So they’ve have been sued. For writing about who “invented” email.
Shiva Ayyadurai claims he invented email. And he didn’t seem to appreciate TechDirt’s Mike Masnick of calling him a fraud for making that claim.
As per a Fortune article on the suit:
Ayyadurai claims that a series of posts on TechDirt amount to libel—in part because the posts call Ayyadurai a “fake email inventor” and a “fraudster” and calls his claims to have invented the technology “bogus.”
Apparently, Ayyadurai created a program that he entitled “EMAIL” around 1978 or 1979. But, according to TechDirt, he merely creating code for one program, and that:
“does not, in any way, establish him as “the creator” of “the” electronic mail system — merely an electronic mail system — and hardly the first one. I could write some sort of email management software tomorrow and copyright that… and it would no more make me an “inventor” of email than Ayyadurai.
TechDirt’s site references NetHistory for the story of how email was actually created. There is no mention of Ayyadurai, as the foundation had apparently already been laid before Ayyadurai created his program.
Email is much older than ARPANet or the Internet. It was never invented; it evolved from very simple beginnings.
Indeed, the core element of email, the idea by Ray Tomlinson to use the @ symbol, was described merely as a “nice hack” when it was first used in 1972, years before Ayyadurai named his program:
We needed to be able to put a message in an envelope and address it. To do this, we needed a means to indicate to whom letters should go that the electronic posties understood – just like the postal system, we needed a way to indicate an address.
This is why Ray Tomlinson is credited with inventing email in 1972. Like many of the Internet inventors, Tomlinson worked for Bolt Beranek and Newman as an ARPANET contractor. He picked the @ symbol from the computer keyboard to denote sending messages from one computer to another. So then, for anyone using Internet standards, it was simply a matter of nominating name-of-the-user@name-of-the-computer. Internet pioneer Jon Postel, who we will hear more of later, was one of the first users of the new system, and is credited with describing it as a “nice hack”. It certainly was, and it has lasted to this day.
At one point in 2014, the Huffington Post wrote a multi-part story about Ayyadurai being the inventor of email. While there’s no doubt that Ayyadurai did create an email system, and did obtain a copyright for his particular code, that didn’t make him the inventor of email as you know it. So says TechDirt in its analysis of the article, concluding that the Post stories ignored the fundamental difference between a copyright on the particular code and a patent on the concept:
Copyright was not, and has never been “the equivalent of a patent.” Copyright and patents are two very different things. Copyright protects specific expression. Patents protect inventions. That’s why copyright protected only the specific code that Ayyadurai wrote, rather than the concept of email.
Techdirt acknowledges that Ayyadurai came up with some cool improvements, such as using the shortened word email in place of electronic mail, and making the full address book part of the email system. But that simply comes under the classification of standing on the shoulders of those that came before you:
Ayyadurai has built up his entire reputation around the (entirely false) claim that he “invented” email. His bio, his Twitter feed and his website all position himself as having invented email. He didn’t. It looks like he wrote an implementation of an email system in 1978, long after others were working on similar things. He may have added some nice features … appears to have potentially been ahead of others in making a full address book be a part of the email system. He may, in fact, be the first person who shortened “electronic mail” to “email” which is cool enough, and he’d have an interesting claim if that’s all he claimed. Unfortunately, he’s claiming much, much more than that. He’s set up an entire website in which he accuses lots of folks, including Techdirt, of unfairly “attacking” him. He apparently believes that some of the attacks on him are because he spoke out against corruption in India. Or because people think only rich white people can invent stuff. None of that is accurate. There’s a simple fact, and it’s that Ayyadurai did not invent email.
TechDirt deserves a vigorous defense. If it doesn’t get that defense, it may go out of business. That is not just bad for the company, it is bad for anyone that believes in free expression.
An important note: Ayyadurai’s counsel is Charles Harder, of California. He’s the one, with bankrolling by Peter Thiel, that brought down Gawker regarding the publication of the Terry Bollea (Hulk Hogan) sex tape. Before the First Amendment issues could be challenged in an appellate court, the $140M verdict sent the company spiraling into bankruptcy.
But don’t think for a second that Harder is infallible. Because he’s also behind the Melania Trump lawsuit where she sued because she was called an escort. And, as I posted recently, I think he screwed the pooch by revealing that Melania wanted to use her new-found high profile to make millions. The negative press was devastating. And I blame the lawyers for that.
The suit is important, very important. Because, while it was easy to laugh at Gawker going down the tubes due to its reprehensible conduct, there were significant First Amendment issues regarding the publication of something that was true, and that Bollea had also made his sex life fodder for discussion.
As Scott Greenfield notes:
There’s no sex tape of Ayyadurai. There’s no ickiness pigeonhole to shove this into. It’s clearly a matter of public interest and concern. And Techdirt isn’t Gawker. At the time, the constitutional “scholars” argued that none of this would happen, there would be no chilling effect. It was just about Gawker, because Gawker, and sex videos because privacy. Nothing to see here, move along.
But Harder figured something out that you didn’t. Or you didn’t want to. He figured out that if you bring a suit, bring it in the right jurisdiction, try to get some home field advantage, a defendant might get Gawkered into submission. In this case, suit was brought in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts. That’s where Ayyadurai happens to be. Mike? He’s in California, far, far away.
Thus far, TechDirt has imposed the defense of “In pilleum caca.”(Go shit in a hat.) But it costs money to do that against the very well-funded Harder.
You can donate to the Techdirt Survival Fund here. Please give a few dollars if you appreciate the right to speak freely.
As I know all too well from personal experience, free speech isn’t free. It needs to be defended.
What a strange allegation, in alleged-inventor-of-e-mail vs. Techdirt lawsuit (Volokh at Washington Post):
No — a copyright registration for a program named “email” is not the U.S. government recognizing Ayyadurai “as the inventor of email.” No-one at the Copyright Office determines whether a program (or any other work) is a new invention. (Patent examiners may do that, but the Copyright Office doesn’t.) Indeed, no-one at the Copyright Office runs the program, reads the source code, or tries to compare the program’s description to those of other programs.
We Stand With TechDirt and So Should You (Carr at Pando):
Certainly the philosophical connection between Thiel’s attempt to kill Gawker and Ayyadurai’s attempt to silence TechDirt couldn’t be clearer: Both involve wealthy tech moguls using their cash (and Charles Harder) to shut down critical reporting, with the handy side effect that other media outlets are frightened into silence. At the very least, Thiel’s crusade against Gawker has emboldened plaintiffs like Ayyadurai to try to outspend the First Amendment.
But, of course, it barely matters whether TechDirt would win or lose in court — the cost of defending a $15m suit could easily be enough to bankrupt the site before a judge gets a chance to rule.
EFF is Proud to Stand Beside Techdirt in its “First Amendment Fight for its Life.” (Greene @ Electronic Frontier Foundation):
Techdirt is a vital resource – it provides a wide audience with independent journalism addressing some of the biggest technology issues of our time. The Internet community wouldn’t be the same without it. But of course this case is not just about Techdirt. It’s about freedom of the press generally.
Man who claims to have invented email has filed a lawsuit that could put one news website out of business (Hiltzik @ LA Times)
Ayyadurai has pursued his claim to be “the man who invented email” energetically in the news media. Lately he’s taken a new tack: filing lawsuits against news organizations that challenge his claim. His most recent target is a small technology news site called Techdirtand its parent company, the Redwood City research firm Floor64.
The website and its founder Mike Masnick — the author of most of the posts at issue in the case — have moved to have the lawsuit thrown out, partially on the grounds that Ayyadurai is a public figure and his activities are legitimate topics of public interest.
Techdirt says that because of its legal costs, the lawsuit has put it in a 1st Amendment “fight for its life.” In a Jan. 11 blog post aimed at drumming up public and financial support, Masnick wrote, “This fight could very well be the end of Techdirt, even if we are completely on the right side of the law.”
The history of email is capacious enough to accommodate hundreds of inspired engineers and scientists. Ayyadurai merits acknowledgment as a contributor to this rich pageant, especially given the talent he showed at 14. But no one should claim to be the inventor of such a multifaceted, evolutionary system, and Ayyadurai should stop trying.