Stupid Legal Threats: Sketchy Crowdfunded Food Scanner Company Threatens To Sue Site That Reported On Phantomware Product

Another day, another ridiculous legal threat. This time it’s from a company called “TellSpec” against the news site Pando Daily. Last year, it appears that Pando had a couple of articles about Tellspec, a crowdfunded food scanning project that raised $386,392 on IndieGoGo. Pando was reasonably skeptical of the product, which claimed it could tell you the “allergens, chemicals, nutrients, calories and ingredients” of your food just by “scanning” the food with a handheld device. Pando called it a “giant medical scam.”

Physicists weighed in that the scientific claims made by Hoffman and Watson were at best dubious and at worst a blatant scam. According to TellSpec’s Indiegogo page, their food scanner would be powered by a “Raman spectrometer,” which puts out pulses of light to measure particle density and collect a detailed fingerprint of the food which is then analyzed in order to calculate nutritional information.

Physicists called bull. Raman spectrometers are weak, big and expensive. To do this scan accurately you would need to be sending out a high density of wavelengths from the spectrometer, fueled by a high-powered source, not a tiny rechargeable battery as TellSpec claimed. It would be impossible, many people said, to miniaturize this so dramatically and to do so for a $250 price tag. That’s without taking into account that most experts suspected the technology would be useless in assessing the finer details of food texture and detecting small trace ingredients in low concentrations, like the food allergens it swore it could find.

Pando noted that after public criticism, TellSpec added a disclaimer (not originally in its pitch video) that the video was not of a real device, but was “solely for the purposes of demonstration.” Since the campaign was funded, the story from TellSpec has changed over time. Here’s more from that Pando article from last year:

On November 18, TellSpec posted a “Live demonstration of technology” on its YouTube page. Unlike the small, less than palm sized device promised on Indiegogo, the scanner used in the four-minute video is much larger, doesn’t operate wirelessly and has a secondary part crudely taped onto it.

Also, some video trickery:

Once again TellSpec displays its knack for misleading videos. When the camera focuses in on the phone to show off its analysis of the food being scanned, the phone’s clock is clearly on display. The first result is from 1:30 p.m., but in the next shot it’s 1:21 p.m., 1:22 p.m. and 1:23 p.m, before jumping back in time again to 1:15 p.m., 1:18 p.m. and 1:19 p.m. What we’re clearly seeing is not a live demo, but a series of cut together clips which cast doubt on whether what’s shown on screen has any connection to what was scanned by the device.

And then there’s this:

Then surprise, surprise, in mid-March, TellSpec updated their Indiegogo page to say that they were ditching the technology that they claimed in the video to have spent nine months working on. The TellSpec scanner wouldn’t have a Raman spectrometer in it, but would instead feature Texas Instruments’ DLP technology, essentially a series of micro-mirrors that switch on and off at high speed.

Anyway, it’s now a year and a half after that story (and over a year since the company had originally promised to deliver its device, and suddenly… TellSpec is threatening Pando with one of the most laughable defamation threats we’ve seen (and we’ve seen a lot of laughable defamation threats):

From: Isabel Hoffmann

Date: October 14, 2015 at 5:01:00 PM PDT

To: Andrew Anker

Subject: Pando Daily Defamation and Retraction

Dear Andrew

Last year, Tellspec was victim of a persistent and consistent defamation attacks, with three articles written by James Robinson and published by Pando Daily. We have sent requests to the editor as well as the past writer to retract the defamation done both on Tellsepc [sic] and my person.

Social media and in particular RedIt [sic] has several explanations that are not very ethical for this sudden attack on Tellspec, I encourage you to read them. After several failed attempts to contact the editor I have engaged a lawyer to start an action against Pando Daily.

I understand that you are now the chairman for Pando Daily and I wonder if you are aware of this. I would appreciate a call or an email so this can be resolved amicable [sic] and without further delay. Tellspec has suffered financial losses due to these articles that claim we are a scam. Please advice [sic] if we can talk before my lawyer contacts you and the editor.

Isabel

All typos in the original. This is a joke. As Ken “Popehat” White often points out, a hallmark of censorious trademark attacks are a failure to actually show what statements the person or company believes to be defamatory. Also, generally speaking, the statute of limitations on defamation claims is one year. The article that Isabel Hoffman/TellSpec is complaining about is from April of 2014. They kinda missed their window to sue, if they truly believed it to be defamatory. Of course, there would actually need to be defamation in the original article as well. And I’ll say this as someone who generally is not a fan of Pando’s reporting, I can’t find a single thing in the original articles that would even border on defamation.

In the Pando article about the threatened lawsuit, Pando editor Paul Carr notes that Hoffman called Pando’s lawyer and is now threatening to sue the site in the UK (famous for somewhat more ridiculous defamation laws) despite the fact that Tellspec appears to be based in Canada and the US, not the UK. After a bout of “libel tourism” the UK finally updated its defamation laws a few years back to make it much harder for non-UK individuals and companies to sue there. And Pando is based in the US as well. Even assuming there was some legitimate way to get a case going in the UK, the SPEECH Act in the US would certainly protect Pando. In short, the whole threat appears to be your standard ridiculous bullying, which will only serves to draw more public scrutiny to Tellspec’s silly project and the original claims it made that it has failed to live up to. Or, as Carr notes:

Hopefully it goes without saying that Tellspec is very welcome to sue us in San Francisco, London, Timbuktu or on Mars. We stand firmly behind our coverage of Tellspec and, as is our policy in these situations, will aggressively defend — in any court that actually has lawful jurisdiction over Pando — against any attempt to silence our reporting.

Of course, finding a lawyer actually willing to file a lawsuit in any of those places may prove to be a challenge. Someone accurately calling you out for a sketchy product with a misleading pitch is not defamation. Sending threats past most reasonable statute of limitations is not a good idea. Sending a threat to sue in a random third party country is not a good idea. And, of course, doing all of that in an attempt to stifle some bad press coverage of your sketchy product is… well… not generally a sign of good judgment.

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