It started out simple enough. Matthew Inman is a web cartoonist who maintains a little site that you might have heard of called The Oatmeal. Over a year ago, Inman noticed that his content was being “re-hosted” on another site, FunnyJunk.com, without his consent. When you’re on the web, you get that this happens. It isn’t fair, legal or okay, but it happens – and there are ways to deal with this kind of piracy (check back later today for a guest post on this very issue).
Inman decided to deal with it by publicly accusing FunnyJunk of stealing his content for money. Apparently, in response, FunnyJunk initially took the images down but since then, Inman says “they’ve practically stolen my entire website and mirrored it on FunnyJunk.”
How many images are we talking? Inman writes that there are 926 images just from his site alone.
But Inman didn’t do much else. He decided to take the “catch more flies with honey” approach and be polite, writing:
I realize that trying to police copyright infringement on the internet is like strolling into the Vietnamese jungle circa 1964 and politely asking everyone to use squirt guns. I know that if FunnyJunk disappeared fifty other clones would pop up to take its place overnight, but I felt I had to say something about what they’re doing.
So game over, right?
The lawyers got involved (I can say this with an appropriate eyeroll because I am a lawyer). Charles Carreon was hired by FunnyJunk.com to do some legal work for the site. When he came across The Oatmeal’s site, he sent a lawyerly letter accusing Inman of defamation and asking for $20,000 in damages. No, I didn’t get that backwards. FunnyJunk, the site which Inman claims stole his content, demanded money damages from Inman.
Inman posted the letter on his website and pondered his next move. And by pondered, I mean that he mocked the letter – a little – and advised his readers that he had a better idea:
1. I’m going to try and raise $20,000 in donations.
2. I’m going to take a photo of the raised money.
3. I’m going to mail you that photo, along with this drawing of your mom seducing a Kodiak bear.
4. I’m going to take the money and donate one half to the National Wildlife Federation and the other half to the American Cancer Society.
The campaign, “Operation BearLove Good. Cancer Bad” went live on Indiegogo. As of today – with just over a week to go – the campaign has raised:
Indiegogo is a platform that helps folks fundraise. It’s free to join but there is a fee on any money that is raised: 4% of the money you raise if you meet your goal or 9% if you do not meet your goal. In addition, there are the normal fees for administration of payments (if you’ve ever worked with PayPal or a credit card processing service, you know the deal).
The company itself isn’t tax-deductible and it doesn’t bill itself as such. Further, it warns consumers that most campaigns on the site are not deductible and that campaigns may offer tax deductions on contributions only if they are set up as a 501(c)(3) non-profit and only receive funds into their non-profit PayPal account. Proof of tax exempt status is required (here’s how that works using IndieGoGo and PayPal). Of course, all of this should make sense to you if you read the blog on a regular basis since fundraising for a cause that you might think is just isn’t enough to be tax deductible: you must have status from IRS.
So I popped over the site to check it out. There’s no mention of tax deductions on the site. I even made a donation – hey, I hate cancer, too, remember? – to see what happened. I received a nice thank you note from the site but nothing advising about tax or other consequences.
I didn’t think anything of it. I kind of figured it was like putting a few dollars in one of those cans that the college kids hold out in the springtime to raise money for their service projects. I wasn’t intending to use it as a tax deduction nor did I have any concerns about whether the charitable organizations would actually receive those funds (I assumed – and still do – that they would).
But Carreon thinks that something funny is going on. He advised The Washington Post that he has filed a 22 page complaint with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in the Bay Area, claiming, among other things, that the charitable fundraiser isn’t valid because neither Inman nor Indiegogo are registered with the Attorney General (like most states, California has a requirement that charities be registered with the state). The lawsuit names Inman, Indiegogo and – wait for – the American Cancer Society and the National Wildlife Federation. That’s a nice use of the resources for those charities, right?
I should clarify that the suit is not on behalf of FunnyJunk but filed by Carreon on his own. In fact, it says, right there in the complaint (on page 13):
“Plaintiff is acting on his own behalf and to protect the rights of all other contributors to the Bear Love campaign…”
Lots of good stuff there, you can read the complaint in its entirety (H/T to Lowering The Bar):
[scribd id=97463233 key=key-anat5xmxhcrap1jk3rt mode=list]
What does this mean for The Oatmeal? I’m not sure but I have a few suspicions (and I’ve reached out to his attorney for comment) and most of them focus on the fact that I can’t imagine this is how Mr. Inman wants to be spending his time – answering complaints and explaining his motivations.
As for the charities? Those few dollars that Mr. Carreon was concerned about them not getting because they’re being diverted to Indiegogo as part of their charges are, I’m guessing, already being eaten up in legal fees (well played, right?).
And the Attorney General (AG)? I can’t help but think that the folks at the AG’s Office have to be rolling their eyes at the complaint (by law in most states, the AG is now officially involved); in most cases, they’re standing up for legitimate charities, not queuing up to pursue matters such as these. And now, with a budget crunch, they get to focus on this.
Please don’t misunderstand my position. I believe that oversight into charitable solicitations is good – especially when there are matters of tax deductibility and charitable dollars at hand. But I also happen to believe that the legal process is in place for good people to do the right thing for the right reasons. I can’t say that I think that’s the case here.
Want more taxgirl goodness? Sign up to receive posts by email, follow me on twitter (@taxgirl), hang out with me on Facebook, pin something to my Pinterest board or check out my new YouTube channel. You can also buy my new ebook at Amazon.com; it’s also available through Hyperink (psst, it’s cheaper on Hyperink).