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Tech Site Vows to Fight ‘Inventor of Email’ Lawsuit

January 11, 2017, 9:05 PM UTC
Film Independent's Filmmaker Forum - Day 3
Mike Masnick and Cotty Chubb at Film Independent's Filmmaker Forum - Day 3 at Directors Guild Of America on October 31, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Paul Redmond/WireImage for Film Independent)
Paul Redmond—WireImage for Film Independent via Getty Images

The publisher of the website TechDirt broke his silence on Wednesday about a $15 million lawsuit filed by the self-proclaimed “inventor of email,” Shiva Ayyadurai, who is suing the site for questioning his accomplishments.

The lawsuit, filed last week, gained attention because Ayyadurai’s lawyer is Charles Harder, who directed a series of cases that bankrupt Gawker Media and that were funded in secret by Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel. Those cases gave rise to concerns that other wealthy individuals would use litigation to stifle critics in the media—concerns that may be heightened in light of the new TechDirt lawsuit.

In a blog post on his site, Mike Masnick said Tech Dirt stands by its claims that email existed long before Ayyadurai wrote an email-related software program, and said the site would fight the lawsuit as baseless.

Masnick added that, even if lawsuits like the one filed by Ayyadurai appear frivolous, they can nonetheless force media companies to capitulate, hinting the case could drive TechDirt out of business:

So, in our view, this is not a fight about who invented email. This is a fight about whether or not our legal system will silence independent publications for publishing opinions that public figures do not like.

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.

The cost of litigation for a small company like TechDirt can be prohibitive, especially in cases like the one by Ayyadurai, which will require the California-based site to travel to Boston to defend the case. For an entrepreneur, the time and stress of such lawsuits can also amount to a significant distraction from running a business.

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Many states, including Massachusetts, have so-called anti-SLAPP statutes, which offer a quick and cost-efficient means to defeat frivolous lawsuits intended to censor or intimidate defendants. But the anti-SLAPP law will likely be of no avail to TechDirt because the statute is largely restricted to cases involving the government, and because the law may not apply in federal court.

As such, TechDirt’s legal bill could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars or even more if the case is subject to numerous procedural motions and appeals.

On Twitter (TWTR) last week, a number of figures from Silicon Valley proposed a crowd-funding scheme to help TechDirt mount a defense, but it’s unclear if any such fund has materialized. In his blog post on Wednesday, Masnick pointed readers to advertising opportunities and a “Friend of Techdirt” page.

Harder did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Masnick’s comments.

This story was updated at 9:25pm ET to provide more details about the Massachusetts anti-SLAPP law.