Techdirt founder Michael Masnick.Mike Masnick via Wikimedia
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Mike Masnick, founder of the popular Techdirt blog, said today that he intends to fight and win the libel lawsuit filed against him by Shiva Ayyadurai, the man who claims he invented e-mail.
In a blog post published this morning, titled “Techdirt’s First Amendment Fight For Its Life,” Masnick says the issue is bigger than the debate about who really invented e-mail.
And he acknowledges the huge toll it could take on his company.
“This is a fight about whether or not our legal system will silence independent publications for publishing opinions that public figures do not like,” wrote Masnick. “And here’s the thing: this fight could very well be the end of Techdirt, even if we are completely on the right side of the law.”
Ayyadurai is seeking at least $15 million in damages, based on 14 Techdirt posts published between 2014 and 2016. He is represented by Charles Harder, a Beverly Hills-based lawyer whose lawsuits recently resulted in the shutdown of another site that covered tech news, Gawker.com. Harder represented at least three clients who sued Gawker, including Ayyadurai. One of Harder’s clients was Terry Bollea, also known as professional wrestler Hulk Hogan, who sued over Gawker’s publication of a sex tape.
Bollea’s lawsuit resulted in a $140 million jury verdict against Gawker, which wiped out the company and the publication.
The litigation turned out to have been quietly financed by Silicon Valley billionaire investor Peter Thiel.
It isn’t clear if Thiel also funded the Ayyadurai lawsuit.
In November, Gawker reached settlements putting its outstanding litigation to rest.
Gawker paid Bollea $31 million and paid Ayyadurai $750,000.
The publication also permanently deleted a story about Ayyadurai arguing that his claims to have invented e-mail were false.
“Congrats Peter Thiel,” responded Masnick in a November blog post about the settlement. “You’ve successfully censored true stories reported by the press.”
In today’s post, Masnick notes that Harder’s earlier suits show that independent media companies can be shut down by libel lawsuits—even a company like Gawker Media, which was a “much more well-resourced company than Techdirt.” He continues:
We are a truly small and independent media company. We do not have many resources. We intend to fight this baseless lawsuit because of the principles at stake, but we have no illusions about the costs.
It will take a toll on us, even if we win.
It will be a distraction, no matter what happens.
It already has been—which may well have been part of Ayyadurai’s intent.
Masnick says that he may set up a dedicated legal defense fund at some point soon, but he has not done so yet. He declined to comment about the matter beyond the blog post.
“The Inventor of Email”
Ayyadurai didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from Ars.
But he thoroughly lays out his viewpoint on his website, theinventorofemail.com. On that site, and in numerous public statements, Ayyadurai has claimed that he invented e-mail in 1978, when he was 14 years old working at a small medical college in New Jersey. He created a messaging system for doctors, called it “EMAIL,” and copyrighted it as such.
Other electronic messaging systems pre-date Ayyadurai’s, including ones used on ARPANET, the predecessor to the Internet. However, Ayyadurai claims those systems do not count as “e-mail,” and he points to his own copyright as evidence for that.
Ayyadurai maintains that the system he invented as a teenager was the first “full-scale emulation of the interoffice inter-organizational paper mail system,” and thus only he can claim to be “The Inventor of Email”—a phrase he has trademarked.
More widely recognized than Ayyadurai is Ray Tomlinson, who created the first network mail system on the ARPANET.
Tomlinson, who passed away last year, combined two existing programs, SNDMSG and CPYNET, to create a system that could send mail across ARPANET.
Ayyadurai is dismissive of Tomlinson’s fame on his website. “SNDMSG was not a system of interlocking parts designed for laypersons to transmit routine office communications, i.e. it was not designed to replicate the interoffice paper mail system,” writes Ayyadurai. “As related references show that SNDMSG was not only not email but also just a very rudimentary form of text messaging.”
The lawsuit against Gawker wasn’t decided on the merits, but in a press release on the matter Ayyadurai says the $750,000 settlement is “a historic victory for truth.” The same statement, he announces his lawsuit (PDF) against Techdirt, which was filed last week in federal court in Massachusetts.