Self-Proclaimed Inventor of Email Files Defamation Lawsuit Against Techdirt's Mike Masnick

This is the latest case from attorney Charles Harder, who previously represented Hulk Hogan against Gawker.
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Mike Masnick

Techdirt founder Mike Masnick will be going toe-to-toe in court with Charles Harder, the Hollywood attorney who famously represented Hulk Hogan in the sex tape lawsuit that brought down Gawker.

On Wednesday, Harder's client Shiva Ayyadurai filed a $15 million libel lawsuit in Massachusetts against Masnick, Leigh Beadon and Techdirt parent company Floor64 Inc. over articles that doubted Ayyadurai's claim to have invented email.

Ayyadurai previously sued Gawker in a lawsuit that many suspected was funded by Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel. Ayyadurai recently settled the claim for $750,000. He and Harder now have a new legal target.

For Techdirt, Masnick writes a wonky tech policy blog that has earned a loyal following for taking strong stances on issues like copyright, net neutrality, security issues and other topics. His name provokes eye-rolling among many studio lawyers thanks to his frequently hostile attitude toward aggressive intellectual property actions. He was one of the noisiest antagonists toward the Stop Online Piracy Act a few years ago. He's also credited with coining the term, "The Streisand Effect," to describe the phenomenon of how attempts to censor information often lead to more awareness of the very information someone is trying to hide. The phrase came after entertainer Barbara Streisand aimed more than a decade ago to suppress photographic images of her Malibu, Calif., residence.

Masnick has been on the receiving end of many cease-and-desist demands through the years — he isn't shy about writing about them — but mostly has escaped lawsuits. Until now.

Ayyadurai first takes issue with an article posted Sept. 2, 2014, headlined, "Why is Huffington Post Running a Multi-Part Series to Promote the Lies of a Guy Who Pretended to Invent Email?"

The article in question accused Ayyadurai of perpetuating a "fake story" of what he supposedly invented at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in 1978.

"By all accounts, it was a perfectly decent email system that allowed the UMDNJ staff to send electronic messages," wrote Masnick at the time. "Further, no one doubts that, in 1981, Ayyadurai registered the copyright on his program, which was called EMAIL. The problems are that (1) email was invented long before 1978, (2) the copyright is merely on the specific software code, not the idea of email, and (3) while Ayyadurai may have independently recreated the basics of email (and even added a nice feature), none of his work was even remotely related to what later became the standards of email. What's most sickening about this is that as part of this new PR campaign, Ayyadurai is ridiculously arguing that the reason no one believes him isn't because he's simply wrong, but because they can't stand to believe that 'a dark-skinned immigrant kid, 14 years old,' invented email, and that it was done in 'one of the poorest cities in the US' rather than at a famous university. "

Masnick wrote more stories on the topic, including several more in September 2014, saying the Huffington Post was sticking by Ayyadurai's "completely bogus" email claims and that "fact checking is dead," and the mainstream media "goes nuts repeating debunked claims by the fake inventor of email."

In 2016, the controversy resurfaced, especially when Ayyadurai sued Gawker right around the time Hulk Hogan was going to trial. The May 11, 2016 headline? "Guy Who Didn't Invent Email Sues Gawker for Pointing Out He Didn't Invent Email." 

Later, when Univision acquired Gawker's assets in bankruptcy and pulled stories including the Ayyadurai one, Masnick again went on the attack. In November, he headlined a piece, "Ridiculous: Nick Denton Settles Remaining Charles Harder Lawsuits, Agrees To Delete Perfectly True Stories," reprising the statements that Ayyadurai has "staked his entire identity" on inventing email, is obsessed with the claim, and is "blatantly misrepresenting history."

A follow-up post laid out the case once again that Ayyadurai hadn't invented email.

Since truth is a defense to allegations of defamation, the history of the invention of email obviously will be explored in the litigation. Masnick also will get to square off against Harder, who currently is representing Melania Trump in a defamation suit against the parent company of Daily Mail and has a notable view of the First Amendment and the supposed advantages enjoyed by media in court. Masnick has been critical of Thiel's involvement in Harder-led lawsuits, although it's not clear whether Thiel plays any role in this one.

Masnick didn't immediately respond to a request for comment, though it won't be surprising if he soon writes about the lawsuit on Techdirt. Besides defamation, Ayyadurai is claiming intentional interference with prospective economic advantage and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Here's the full complaint.