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Peter Shankman and HelpAReporterOut (HARO) Just Sent Me a Cease-and-Desist Letter

Posted in Entrepreneurship, News, Personal, Posts by

Backstory: A couple weeks ago, I launched a site called PRManna.com, to help startups and small businesses connect with reporters and other journalists who are looking for experts and sources for stories. The launch was well received, got picked up on ReadWriteWeb, and people have been using the site for the last couple weeks. I was originally inspired by Peter Shankman’s HelpAReporterOut (HARO) service, and I mentioned that on the about page. However, his service was a simple mailing list, nothing more, and I thought the idea could be improved upon substantially, so I did.

Today, I got a cease-and-desist letter from Mr. Shankman’s law firm. It’s basically four pages of legal bullshit, but the gist of what they’re claiming is this:

  • I stole his idea (bullshit, his service was a mailing list when I built PRManna, and there are tons of sites for this purpose)
  • I used his name without permission (true, as I wanted to give credit to him for the inspiration to create something better than a simple mailing list. Clearly a big mistake on my part.)
  • I “blatantly” copied the “look and feel” of the HelpAReporter.com website (this is more of an insult to them if true, as PRManna has lame design / usability)

And as a result of the above, they’re demanding that I:

  • Remove any mention of Peter Shankman, HelpAReporterOut, HARO, etc. from all my sites (happily done, except for this blog post)
  • Stop using PRManna, PRManna.com, etc.
  • Transfer ownership of PRManna.com to Peter Shankman’s company :)

I’m still debating my options…let me know if you have any suggestions. Let me know if you want to see the actual letter and I’ll post a link. I have to say, I’m pretty disappointed that Peter decided to be such a jackass about this. If he had bothered to write me an email, I would have gladly removed his name and never mentioned this to anyone.

Hey Peter, if you’re reading this, I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard of the Streisand Effect, but if not, you might want to see if you can find an expert source who can explain it to you. If you’d like a place to post a request, you can check out http://PRManna.com.

UPDATE: Here’s a link to the full content of the letter. [PDF]

UPDATE 2: I just wanted to say thank you so much to all of you out there who have blogged, tweeted, and left comments with your support. I’ve received tons of emails and tweets from people encouraging me and asking how they can help. I’m so grateful to work in such a supportive industry, and if you want to help, please check out PRManna and let me know what I can do to improve it. I really just want to create something useful that helps people do great things, and I’d love your help.

UPDATE 3: I’ve also seen a few blog posts commenting on how similar the PRManna homepage is to the HARO homepage. I personally don’t think that’s the case, but regardless of my opinion, what I can tell you is that the PRManna homepage was designed more than 10 months before HARO did their relaunch in early 2010. In fact, here’s a screenshot that was posted publicly to Skitch on March 5th, 2009:


I’ve got plenty of other code, screenshots, and other bits of proof that I built this service a year before HARO decided to launch what they’ve got today.

You should subscribe and follow me on Twitter here.

  • anonymous

    HARO is a great idea, but horribly implemented. I reached out to him once to help him improve the experience, but I got the feeling that he didn't quite "get it".

    Keep working on your project and fight the good fight.

    • http://twitter.com/ryanwaggoner Ryan W.

      Don't worry. The funny thing is, I was actually on the fence a bit as to whether I wanted to really pour a lot of effort into PRManna, but Shankman has just validated my effort tremendously, as he clearly thinks that I'm a threat and would rather take the cowardly route of hiding behind his lawyers than trying to out-innovate me.

  • anon

    IANAL. If you're really worried, get a lawyer.

    I'd just remove all mention of his name and HARO from your site and ignore the letter. A C&D letter alone means nothing. It costs (virtually) nothing to send and can contain totally unsubstantiated, even false, claims.

    They can demand that you castrate yourself and mail your penis to Mr. Shankman. I don't think you need a lawyer to tell you that's a bad idea.

  • Rishi

    Hi Ryan,

    This is quite funny, is this a real legal firm? Comply with point 1, but just ignore the rest.

    Myspace: "omg facebook copied our idea!"

  • http://paulstamatiou.com Paul Stamatiou

    IANAL of course.

    As someone who has been on the receiving end of a C&D or two before, I agree with the others above me: remove all mentions of HARO, etc (as you already did) and ignore the letter. If they want to push on with their meritless case let them spend the money and spin in circles.

  • http://twitter.com/JuanHerr Juan

    I thought HARO was founded on the principles of better communication channels for media and sources/PR? This move just makes Mr. Shankman lose some credibility as it seems his only intent is to corner the market.

    They want you to transfer ownership over to them? Seriously? There's plenty of room for both and if anything, having a little competition could improve both services.

    I'm curios to hear Mr. Shankman's response…

  • Lisa Lucas

    Thanks for sharing the letter. It is, as you say, funny and pathetic.

    You might want to check out the Chilling Effects site (http://www.chillingeffects.org/), which documents cease and desist efforts. They also accept submissions–see the "Report Receiving a C&D Notice" tab on their site–and I think the letter you received would attract some attention.

    • http://twitter.com/ryanwaggoner Ryan W.

      Already posted to chillingeffects.org. Thanks!

  • http://colmbrophy.com Colm Brophy

    Definitely agree with the above commenter that a cease and desist letter is a fairly weak and you shouldn't worry much unless it's actually escalated to something more serious.

    I don't see what you've stolen, is he claiming that the concept of helping reporters or putting them in touch with sources is either his idea or an idea that can be owned. Frankly people have been doing that for decades (if not centuries). The originality of HARO is using the internet to do this but I can't see what he's doing prohibits what you're doing in any way.

    What I suspect is that he may be working on developing a HARO app himself which has not been launched yet and doesn't want his thunder being stolen.

    • http://www.padmapper.com Eric

      Wow, that's pretty insulting, demanding you transfer control over to him.

      PRNewswire has had a similar service online for a while now, albeit closed off and probably $$$, so I don't think HARO was the first.

      And HARO is pretty poorly implemented, I can't wait for something that doesn't require me to wade through 100's of links in an email to find something remotely relevant.

      Good luck, Ryan

      • http://twitter.com/ryanwaggoner Ryan W.

        Thanks so much for the encouragement. Do sign up for PRManna and let me know what you think. I had the exact same issue as you a year ago, and got tired of wading through all those links, which was why I built PRManna to begin with. Biggest lesson I learned was to not wait to release, so I'll be pushing a LOT of new features and enhancements to PRManna in the weeks to come.

  • Joseph

    To reiterate what some others have said- IANAL, but the C&D is meaningless, and in this case all points are completely invalid. Even your use of the names would in this case be completely covered under fair use. There's absolutely no law requiring you to get anyone's permission to put them anywhere on your site unless they are properly marked trademarks _and_ you are using them in such a way that dilutes their trademark unfairly. You weren't even close to doing those things. Same with the claim that the design was copied- completely legal in the first place unless it confuses people into thinking you are HARO or if you literally copied copyrighted html/css from their site.

    IANAL, but I recommend you don't change a thing, including mentioning them- now you can link to this blog entry in addition so that people will… uh… have a better idea of who to trust in servicing their needs.

    Finally, it looks like you may have stumbled on something very worthwhile and that could even generate revenue, based on the fact that HARO somehow feels very threatened.

  • Sharon

    This is very interesting. I've "known" Peter on-line for years now, and think he's a very clever fellow, but let's face it — ProfNet was there first as a free list-serv designed to connect academics, scientists and researchers with reporters. I remember using the service all the way back in 1994 or 1995! ProfNet was eventually acquired by PRNewswire, and is no longer free. I work for a nonprofit so get the service for a good rate, but it can be quite pricy.

    In the early days of HARO, Peter used to talk quite often about how he was competing with ProfNet, and even shared nastygrams he received from =them,= so for him to go after someone else who is trying to carve out a niche market that HARO's not serving is kind of sad to me.

  • http://twitter.com/peterc Peter Cooper

    I stole his idea

    That has nothing to do with anything. A news site is hardly a new idea. A search engine is hardly a new idea (imagine Altavista sending Google a cease and desist in 1998!). Ideas are only protectable when formalized and patented. The only thing he could have you on is actual copying of content, which doesn't seem to be the case here.

    The case for removing his name(s) is reasonably weak too, as even if he's trademarked them, you're allowed to use trademarks in a nominative way to merely make a reference (otherwise people wouldn't be able to talk about any company).

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  • Michael Johnston

    Shankman ought to be ashamed of himself for his bullying tactics. I have cancelled my subscription to his service and I believe anyone who agrees that this is a malicious overreach on his part should do the same.

    • http://www.Viatical-Expert.net Gloria Wolk

      I agree completely with Michael. I did not see the link to the lawyer letter at first, I was so busy reading the comments. But you are in California. If Shankman decides to bring suit, he MUST

    • http://www.Viatical-Expert.net Gloria Wolk

      I agree completely with Michael. I did not see the link to the lawyer letter at first, I was so busy reading the comments. But you are in California. If Shankman decides to bring suit, he MUST file in California–where the defendant is domiciled. California has the best anti-SLAPP legislation in the nation. And the most powerful First Amendment lawyers. In particular, I recommend Paul Klevin. He's in your locale, too, and reasonably priced.

      I've also learned a great deal about these threats that because the Internet reaches to all corners of the world you can be sued anywhere. That is not true. Unless you specifically target NY, he is blowing smoke. Unless you own property in NY or have any other business dealings in NY, the long arm statute does not apply. Unfortunately for me, when I was sued by slimey viatical companies in Florida and in Texas, the lawyers did not do the research I have done since.

  • Levi McConnaghy

    This doesn't surprise me. Peter Shankman is probably the largest douche I have ever seen (in person and on the internet.) Get a good lawyer and please pummel the bullying faggot into the ground. I would even be willing to donate to such a cause.

  • http://spencerfry.com Spencer Fry

    It tickles me when people send C&D letters when competition pops up when it should simply motivate them to do a better job. Stop wasting time and money preparing a C&D and actually start innovating on your product. Sigh.

  • http://www.OnTechnologyContracts.com D. C. Toedt

    If you do talk to a lawyer, ask him/her whether you might be able to assert "nominative fair use" in response (see generally the Wikipedia article).

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  • http://www.recessmobile.com/ Yury Tsukerman

    I'm disappointed to see this from HARO. Not that I have any reason to be other than an unfounded belief in the innate virtue of fellow entrepreneurs, @Levi's comments notwithstanding.

    This should win you some good PR. I, for one, signed up for your service. Consider submitting a request on HARO for sources on frivolous C&Ds (from a "popular blog").

    As for the advice here and elsewhere, beware the Hacker News Disease. Get an IP attorney.

    You might be interested in the case of Southbutt, especially their answer to North Face's infringement complaint.

    Good luck!

  • http://www.hrmediaconnectionz.com Gail Kent

    Ryan — This is like "déjà vu all over again." I, too, started a service with the purpose of connection journalists and sources about two years ago. My service is for "local only" journalists and sources in the Hampton Roads, Virginia, market. I, too, included a line on my site saying that it was "inspired by Peter Shankman of HARO," and I encouraged people to sign up for his list if they were looking for national links. I actually met Peter at a conference shortly after he started his service, and I personally told him that I was doing this, but he ignored me, all while scanning the crowd behind me to see if there was somebody more interesting to talk to or flirt with (I'm a 58-year-old woman — not a date prospect for him). Imagine my surprise when I launched my site, and Peter emailed me accusing me of stealing his code. He immediately cut me off from getting his service. I called him and tried to make nice with him, explaining that I was not competing with him and had no plans to do so. My service is free, local and is not for profit. How am I a threat to him? So after talking to him, he seemed to be cool with it all and allowed me to re-subscribe to his service (I have PR clients, so I was using his list to help them). I thought we were done with it.

    Then last summer — a year after I launched — I, too, got a cease-and-desist letter from Shankman's lawyer accusing me of stealing his idea, violating his copyright and copying the "look and feel" of his site. My site looks NOTHING like his, and the only similarity between the two services is that I'm also connecting reporters and sources. Like in Ryan's case, Shankman's letter demanded that I take off any reference to him or HARO and to include a statement on my site that said my site was in no way related to his. It also threatened further legal action EVEN IF I did those things.

    I was livid. I wrote a very nasty letter back to Shankman and his lawyers telling them that I would gladly remove any reference to him — after all, it was only promoting him, and why would I want to do that after the way he had treated me — and that I would also gladly include a line saying that my site was not related to his. I also told him that if he ever bothered or threatened me again, that I would post his letter online and make a public issue of it. I should have done it at the time, as you have done here. I knew that he had absolutely no legal grounds to force me to do anything. As others have said here, you can't copyright an idea. If that was the case, we would all still be driving Model T's. But I also knew that Shankman had the financial resources to pay lawyers to make my life hell, and I don't have the money to pay lawyers to defend me against his ridiculous crap. So I posted his disclaimer to keep the ass from costing me money.

    Sometime after this happened, I found another similar service online, and I contacted the owner to warn them about Shankman. They, too, had had a “Shankman moment.” This is obviously his M.O.

    As Sharon said, Shankman was "inspired" by ProfNet, which preceded his service by many years. He bragged about thumbing his nose at them when objections were raised by their owners. He cost them millions, I'm sure. It really galls me that he claims to be running his service for "karma," as if it's all because he's such a great, benevolent guy and there's nothing in it for him. In fact, he has publicly stated that he rakes in over $1 million a year in advertising with HARO. I don't begrudge him — or anyone — for making money, but to claim it is for "karma," and for people to continue perpetrating that myth, is inane. Peter Shankman is a rude, self-serving, egotistical bully who imagines himself a rock star. He has no clue what the "social" in "social media" means. There is no reason for anyone to be such a jerk, especially someone who preaches social media and public relations. What goes around comes around, and I’m glad it’s coming around. Let me know if I can help you.

  • http://amvona.com/blog jonknep

    Thank you for doing something beneficial to the online community of journalists. What did you get in return? A pain in the butt. I hope this recent occurrence continue to pick up steam (and coverage) online. We covered it on Amvona, but I didn’t want a link to seem spammy and/or take away from my post. Best of luck in the future!

    Gail- Informative post about your situation. The above goes for you as well : )


  • http://virtual.dmittleman.com Danny

    I read about this issue in Techdirt today. I signed up for PRManna after reading. Good luck with your service.

  • Mark

    Mike Masnick over at TechDirt gave a little write up about your position (http://techdirt.com/articles/20100228/1646008328.shtml).

  • http://gordonbrander.com Gordon Brander

    What a childish response to competition.

    Best of luck on your venture, Ryan.

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  • http://Contempt.me Contempt

    As someone that deals with C&D's a lot in my field (completely different situation of course, but you know what I mean) I would tell him the following, in these exact words:

    Suck my member.

    If you copied his design literally word for word, then yes he has somewhat of a ground to stand on. Still barely, though. As for the mentioning his name, unless you're making statements that are false it doesn't matter. You're in the right here.

    Talk to a lawyer about it, I'm sure he'll say the same thing. Just make sure you get an IP lawyer (intellectual property).

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  • http://www.thebasemententrepreneur.com Chris @ The Basement

    They want your domain name? That is just bizarre and shameful.

  • Steve

    I once served as an expert witness in a 'trade dress' suit and learned of the landmark legal case of Haagen-Dazs vs. Frusen Gladje. HD sued FG on the grounds that HD was a made up name and that FG had stolen the idea of 'imaginary' Danish ice cream. The court ruled in favor of FG, commenting that all HD had done was to create the imaginary Danish ice cream market. As long as a consumer could reasonably tell the difference between the two brands, HD had no legal grounds to prohibit competition in any market, even one of its own creation.

    This more or less echoes what you have been told in preceding comments but I felt like getting my two cents in. This is because I would love for a competitive service to take on HARO so I could stop reading daily updates about Shankman and his stupid cats.

    • http://natanael.yiid.com Natanael L

      "Frusen Gladje" = "Frusen Glädje"?

      Sounds swedish/other scandinavian language-ish to me.

      ("Frozen Joy" in english)

  • http://www.sixdegreesofvisibility vee

    What an ass. i've been thinking of starting the same thing except in a diffrent country. this will not stop me. keep going mate.

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