Andy Baio isn't trying to pick a fight with Bill Cosby. Rather, he says, his recent legal tangle with the comedian is a matter of principle.
Several months ago, Baio, the operator of Waxy.org, came across a set of animated videos online called House of Cosbys. The goofy and sometimes vulgar parodies revolve around the adventures that ensue from a house full of Bill Cosby clones. (Think South Park-style humor here.)
The freely distributed cartoons from animator Justin Roiland were an instant hit with thousands of people. And Baio found them to be so funny that he made them available for download from his site.
Cosby, however, apparently isn't in on the joke. His lawyers have been sending out "cease and desist" letters in a vain effort to remove the cartoons from the Internet. Notably, the attorneys went after the original distributor of the cartoons, Channel 101 (channel101.com).
"When I received a cease and desist from Cosby's attorneys, my initial response was to de-activate the video because I was sad that we had offended a brilliant comedian. That's how naive I was," wrote Channel101 co-creator Dan Harmon. "Then I ran into a certain legendary producer at a party who yelled at me for rolling over, told me there were important principles at stake, so I violated the order and put the videos back up, effectively calling Cosby's attorneys' bluff."
Undeterred, the attorneys targeted Channel 101's Internet hosting provider, which ordered the site to remove the cartoons.
Channel 101 relented. And so have many others. But Baio has not.
He received his own "cease and desist" letter earlier this month and, for now at least, he's refusing to budge.
"House of Cosbys is parody, and clearly falls under fair use guidelines," Baio writes on his site. "I'm not taking it down, and their legal bullying isn't going to work. They claim that hosting these videos 'violates our client's rights of publicity as well as other statutory and common laws prohibiting the misappropriation of an individual's name, voice and likeness and unfair competition.' Sorry, but the First Amendment protects satire and parody of a public figure as free speech. Also, the right of publicity only applies to unauthorized commercial use, and not a work of art or entertainment."
Furthermore, Baio says, the legal threats reek of double standards.
"More than anything, this strikes me as a special kind of discrimination against amateur creators on the Internet. Mad Magazine, Saturday Night Live, South Park, The Simpsons, Family Guy, and countless other mainstream media sources have parodied Bill Cosby over the years. ... But because it takes so little effort to threaten a small web-based artist (or the blogger who hosts their work), the Net is constantly targeted regardless of just cause."
The videos remain available on Baio's site, and Baio says he's not backing down unless a court orders him to do so.
"This is free speech and creative freedom, and even though it's just one guy's goofy labor of love, that's worth fighting for, dammit."
Indeed, Baio's fight is well worth supporting.
Cosby's reputation will surely survive a little online ribbing. The future of free expression on the Internet isn't so certain.