Techdirt v. the ‘inventor of email,’ is a great example of why the US needs a strong federal anti-SLAPP statute.
Shiva Ayyadurai recently filed a complaint against Techdirt for contending that he never invented email. You can find the full complaint here. Ayyadurai did invent something called EMAIL and did copyright it but it only existed in a small hospital setting whereas Techdirt contends the origin of email stems from the original ARPAnet, the decentralized packet switching network that would evolve to become what we know as the Internet, and Ray Tomlinson, the man who gave rise to the @ symbol in email addresses and whose efforts predate Ayyadurai’s.
The crux of Ayyadurai’s legal and factual arguments rely mostly on conflating copyright and patent protection. He also cleverly selected his forum as the Federal District Court in Boston likely to deliberately avoid any kind of anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) statute.
By comparison, California’s anti-SLAPP law, California Code of Civil Procedure § 425.16, effectively forces the plaintiff to ‘put up or shut up.’ When an anti-SLAPP motion is filed, litigation stops and the plaintiff has to show a reasonable chance of succeeding on the merits of the claim before proceeding. This is a great way for courts to get rid of trash that clogs their dockets and saves defendants from truly frivolous suits designed purely to impinge against their first amendment rights.
The famous “Streisand Effect”—where someone attempts to bury or censor something but by result draws attention to it—was born from an anti-SLAPP case. Barbara Streisand sued an aerial photographer to prevent the distribution of photos of her house. Not only did the court SLAPP her but her efforts backfired drawing an insane amount of attention to the photos that otherwise contained no remarkable value and coined a new term to describe the phenomenon. The citizens and courts of California don’t have to deal with garbage lawsuits like that so why should anyone else?
Additionally, the complaint in the Techdirt case looks like it’s designed to barely escape Rule 11 sanctions and be as financially onerous as possible until Ayyadurai gets booted out on summary judgment. Ayyadurai uses his carefully chosen choice of forum as a tool to make Techdirt bleed financially. And there’s really no reason for it. If a strong federal anti-SLAPP statute similar to California’s existed, this case would get tossed before the plaintiff gets the chance to run wild with what will likely be a dumpster fire of a discovery process and the involvement of expensive experts.
Furthermore, you don’t get to sue your way into the annals of history. Does filing a suit like this really achieve Ayyadurai’s objective of recognition that he’s the sole inventor of email? Definitely not. If anything, similar to Streisand, he has achieved quite the opposite by drawing everyone’s attention to the defects in his factual claims.
Unless his only objective involves vindictiveness in which case he’s already succeeded. Regardless of motive, the federal courts shouldn’t have to tolerate cases like this and it’s up to Congress to follow California’s example.