Techdirt asks court to throw out email defamation suit

Michael Masnick, who founded the Techdirt blog and invented the “Streisand effect.” has asked a court for a defamation lawsuit against him to be thrown out.

Masnick was sued last month by Shiva Ayyadurai, a scientist and entrepreneur who claims to have invented e-mail in 1978 while at a medical college in New Jersey.

In his motion, Masnick claims that Ayyadurai “is seeking to use the muzzle of a defamation action to silence those who question his claim to historical fame”.

His suit says: “Defendants believe that because the critical elements of electronic mail were developed long before Ayyadurai’s 1978 computer program, his claim to be the “inventor of e-mail” is false”.

Techdirt’s allegedly defamatory statements are constitutionally protected opinion. “This lawsuit is a misbegotten effort to stifle historical debate, silence criticism, and chill others from continuing to question Ayyadurai’s grandiose claims”, Masnick’s lawyers wrote.

The tricky point of the court case appears to be the fact that Techdirt referred to Ayyadurai as a “fake,” a “liar,” or a “fraud” by putting forth “bogus” claims. Masnick insists that such phrases are “rhetorical hyperbole” meant to express opinions and said that the law provides no redress for harsh name-calling.

Techdirt uses “frequently sarcastic, obviously… humorous” subheadings and “casual and often hyperbolic” tone.

Masnick said that the Ayyadurai repeatedly attacks the conclusion that he is not the ‘inventor of email. But bo matter how fervently plaintiff may insist that he alone “invented email,” the law does not entitle him to recover damages simply because Techdirt has uttered a “subjective characterisation” to the contrary.

Both Ayyadurai and Masnick acknowledge that the MAILBOX program was created at MIT in the 1960s and that Ray Tomlinson created the “@” symbol protocol in 1971.

Ayyadurai calls the ARPANET creations “command-line protocols for transferring text messages” or “primitive electronic communication systems.” In Masnick’s view, Ayyadurai doesn’t dispute the historical facts, but instead “attacks Techdirt’s opinion that because those developments implemented the essential features of ’email’ therefore Ayyadurai’s claimed ‘inventor’ status is unwarranted.”

Techdirt admits that Ayyadurai created a useful software program while he was at UMDNJ and even “applauds it.” Masnick also said Ayyadurai “should be quite proud of what he’s done”.

Techdirt’s “general tenor” reinforces that it is a blog of opinionated commentary. The posts in question were written in first person, “resemble letters and op-ed columns,” and relate to a “heated debate” over the origins of email that dates to at least 2012.

Masnick asked for the lawsuit to be thrown out under California’s anti-SLAPP law. If successful, an anti-SLAPP ruling could result in some of his legal fees being covered.

That motion argues that California law should be followed because Masnick, Techdirt.com, and parent company Floor64 all reside in California and have no connections to Massachusetts, where Ayyadurai lives and filed his lawsuit.

Part of the problem here is that Tech Dirt does not really have the money to be fighting this case, nor can it afford to lose. Ayyadurai has already settled one case in his favour because the magazine in question went bust and had to pay him off.