Techdirt lawyers ask judge to throw out suit over “Inventor of E-mail” | Ars Technica
Michael Masnick, who founded the popular Techdirt blog, filed a motion today asking for a defamation lawsuit against him to be thrown out. Masnick was sued last month by Shiva Ayyadurai, a scientist and entrepreneur who claims to have invented e-mail in 1978 at a medical college in New Jersey.
In his motion, Masnick claims that Ayyadurai “is seeking to use the muzzle of a defamation action to silence those who question his claim to historical fame.” He continues:
The 14 articles and 84 allegedly defamatory statements catalogued in the complaint all say essentially the same thing: that Defendants believe that because the critical elements of electronic mail were developed long before Ayyadurai’s 1978 computer program, his claim to be the “inventor of e-mail” is false.
The motion holds that Techdirt’s allegedly defamatory statements are actually constitutionally protected opinion. “This lawsuit is a misbegotten effort to stifle historical debate, silence criticism, and chill others from continuing to question Ayyadurai’s grandiose claims,” write Masnick’s lawyers.
The motion skims the history of e-mail and points out that the well-known fields of e-mail messages, like “to,” “from,” “cc,” “subject,” “message,” and “bcc,” were used in ARPANET e-mail messages for years before Ayyadurai made his “EMAIL” program.
Ayyadurai focuses on statements calling him a “fake,” a “liar,” or a “fraud” putting forth “bogus” claims. Masnick counters that such phrases are “rhetorical hyperbole” meant to express opinions and reminds the court that “[t]he law provides no redress for harsh name-calling.”
The perfect cheesecake
The motion also points out Techdirt’s “frequently sarcastic, obviously… humorous” subheadings and “casual and often hyperbolic” tone to explain some of the harsher phrases in the Ayyadurai posts. One of Techdirts posts calls Ayyadurai “absolutely nutty” and another says his “claim is complete bullshit.”
“Instead of articulating what facts in the posts are supposedly untrue, Plaintiff repeatedly attacks the conclusion that he is not the ‘inventor of email’,” write Masnick’s lawyers. They continue:
No matter how fervently plaintiff may insist that he alone “invented email,” the law does not entitle him to recover damages simply because Techdirt has uttered a “subjective characterization” to the contrary. It is in the very nature of computer science that new ideas and products emerge in an evolutionary way, as various actors modify and improve what has come before.
Whether any individual person “invented” a given technology is invariably a subjective determination that will vary depending on which features are deemed essential to the product. The answer will always remain in the eye of the beholder. The debate over who “invented” email is inherently incapable of objective proof…
It is like a debate over the precise moment when the civil rights movement began or a quarrel about the essential attributes of a perfect cheesecake.
In the end, this isn’t a debate about facts, say Masnick’s lawyers. Both Ayyadurai and Masnick acknowledge that the MAILBOX program was created at MIT in the 1960s and that Ray Tomlinson created the “@” symbol protocol in 1971. The two draw different conclusions, however. Ayyadurai calls the ARPANET creations “command-line protocols for transferring text messages” or “primitive electronic communication systems.” In Masnick’s view, Ayyadurai doesn’t dispute the historical facts, but instead “attacks Techdirt’s opinion that because those developments implemented the essential features of ’email’ therefore Ayyadurai’s claimed ‘inventor’ status is unwarranted.”
Techdirt admits that Ayyadurai created a useful software program while he was at UMDNJ and even “applauds it.” In addition to his criticism, Masnick also said Ayyadurai “should be quite proud of what he’s done.”
Other statements that Ayyadurai has sued over, Masnick’s lawyers describe as essentially speculations about Ayyadurai’s motivation and intent, which can’t be actionable because they are just inferences. Statements in this category include Techdirt posts stating that Ayyadurai is “blatantly misrepresenting history for his own personal aggrandizing,” “relying on the ignorance of reporters,” and “obsessed with his false claim of creating email.”
The brief also notes that Techdirt’s “general tenor” reinforces that it is a blog of opinionated commentary. The posts in question were written in first person, “resemble letters and op-ed columns,” and relate to a “heated debate” over the origins of email that dates back to at least 2012.
Masnick also filed a motion asking for the lawsuit to be thrown out under California’s anti-SLAPP law. If successful, an anti-SLAPP ruling could result in some of his legal fees being covered. That motion argues that California law should be followed because Masnick, Techdirt.com, and parent company Floor64 all reside in California and have no connections to Massachusetts, where Ayyadurai lives and filed his lawsuit.
“Unfortunately, the fight itself is incredibly distracting and burdensome,” writes Masnick in a blog post published shortly after his legal documents were filed today. “It has taken up a significant amount of my time (and the time of others who work here) over the last month and delayed multiple projects that we were working on and even forced us to pass on writing about many stories we would have liked cover.”
Masnick has created a “Techdirt Survival Fund” at ISupportJournalism.com.
Ayyadurai didn’t respond to an e-mailed request for comment about Masnick’s new arguments. Masnick declined to comment beyond his court filings and blog post.