I am kneeling on a sun-dappled hardwood floor with stacks of $20 bills in $2,000 bundles in each hand helping to spell out the word "douchebaggery," and thinking: $220,000 just doesn't seem like that much money. I found myself in this position after asking Matthew Inman, the artist behind the cartoon and business The Oatmeal, if I could take pictures when he withdrew the cash he will ultimately hand over to the American Cancer Society and the National Wildlife Federation in order to use it to make fun of a Web site that threatened him with legal action.
This is the latest episode in a saga that BoingBoing has documented in quite some detail, and which began June 11, when Inman posted an annotated version of a letter he had received from Charles Carreon, a well-known attorney representing FunnyJunk, a user-submitted content site, complaining about a post Inman had made a year ago. Inman complained in 2011 about FunnyJunk's business model, noting, "Most of the comics they've stolen [have] no credit or link back to me. Even with proper attribution, no one clicks through and FunnyJunk still earns a huge pile of cash from all the ad revenue." It's a common problem with sites that rely on submitted items, and each site has different policies on how to manage such unauthorized postings. Inman didn't issue DMCA takedown notices, though he would have been within his rights. He says he's just not interested in engaging in that sort of behavior. (By the way, did you know you have to register an agent with the copyright office to qualify for the safe-harbor provision of the DMCA? Me, neither! FunnyJunk's registration was received May 29, 2012, shortly before its lawyer sent the letter to Inman.)
In Inman's response to the letter, he said instead of avoiding potential litigation by, among other things, paying FunnyJunk $20,000, he would instead raise that much money and give it to the American Cancer Society and the National Wildlife Federation. If he achieved that goal, he would take a picture of the money in cash and send that photo along with a "drawing of your mom seducing a Kodiak bear" to FunnyJunk. In the actual event, Inman raised $220,024 via an Indiegogo campaign. Hence the cash in his office.
(Between posting his annotated letter and the collection of cash, as we wrote here, Carreon expressed bewilderment to MSNBC about Inman's response, threatened to sue Inman and other parties, and then actually filed suit against Inman, Indiegogo, the National Wildlife Federation, and the American Cancer Society, among other unnamed parties. I also highly recommend Popehat's legal discussion of the filings. Inman is represented by Venkat Balasubramani, who wrote this marvelous response to Carreon's initial legal letter. After Carreon filed a suit on his own behalf, the EFF joined Balasubramani to provide aid to Inman. As Popehat notes, Carreon might run afoul of anti-SLAPP [strategic lawsuit against public participation] laws, too. BoingBoing knows something about anti-SLAPP suits. On June 30, Carreon updated his suit with even more allegations, and proposed a settlement. On July 3, Carreon withdrew his suit. I'm not even getting into Carreon and his wife's fascinating political Web sites with photoshopped images nor their poetry.)
This all leads to the money I (sadly, temporarily) have in my hands (see full photo set). I'm in an office in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle, near where I had my own office space for several years, with Inman's mother (who handles merchandise fulfillment), his girlfriend, his sole employee, and an old friend with whom he used to work. The office is nearly empty. They've just moved in. A few digitally printed "oil paintings" adorn the walls. A stack of prints of a Wookiee holding a light saber with a crucifix emerging is on one table.
Inman had arranged with his bank a few days before to receive the money at a branch, where they took him into a vault to receive his cash. The bank typically has less than half that amount in cash on hand, a fact that perhaps it shouldn't have shared. He was told to bring four backpacks to hold the cash, but did his own estimations and brought a modest duffel instead.
I am apparently implicitly trustworthy enough to handle the cash, and we all assisted Matthew in arranging bills first to spell "FUCK YOU" and then "F.U." and then, in two passes, "PHILANTHROPY > DOUCHEBAGGERY" in a sort of dot-matrix/bitmap style. At one point, Inman's mom suggests he pose inside the U, which he does, and then holds out a middle finger. "Oh, don't do that," his mother says. He puts his hand down for a moment, and then holds up both hands with middle fingers extended. (Matthew is a mild-mannered, pleasant chap.)
The more you handle large sums of money, the more ridiculous the concept becomes. A $20 bill, on its own, feels like it has some worth; 1,100 of them are absurd, like confetti or Monopoly bills. There are too many to take seriously. I have this same feeling every time I try to explain to my young children how money and the economy works: "Kids, this piece of paper is different than all others. It's been imbued with magical ink properties and a sort of religious faith in the United States government."
Inman says confronted with the cash in his hands, he's uncomfortable with what he's doing. "It seems boastful," he says, worrying that it is childish spelling out obscenities and insults with hundreds of thousands of dollars on his floor. His buddy says, "When did you stop being willing to be ridiculous, Matt?" "When I turned 29." He is nearly 30 now.
Photos were taken from many angles. Inman finished up with a rough "drawing" of one of his typical Oatmeal faces with some crazy hair to make it look more like the "mom" in his drawing. And then we packed up the money so he could take it back and re-deposit it in the bank.
The final sum was roughly $205,000 after payment processing costs and Indiegogo's fee, some paid via PayPal and some direct to Indiegogo. Indiegogo has disbursed, on June 29, $96,000 to the two charities, and Inman has checks written for the remainder in the hands of his lawyer to send off as soon as the legal coast is clear.
Glenn Fleishman, @glennf, is the editor and publisher of The Magazine, a fortnightly electronic periodical for curious people with a technical bent. Glenn hosts The New Disruptors, a podcast about connecting creators and makers to their audiences, and writes as “G.F.” at the Economist's Babbage blog. He is a regular panel member on the geeky media podcast The Incomparable. In October 2012, Glenn won Jeopardy! twice.