The Craven Submission of the Fountain Pen Network

Sometime last week, Montblanc had Fountain Pen Network censor dozens of posts, perhaps more than a hundred in total. These posts broke no laws and violated no copyright, but they did not suit Montblanc’s purposes and so Fountain Pen Network simply erased them all. In today’s post, I’m going to look at this from FPN’s point of view and why I think it’s probably the dumbest thing they’ve done, at least so far this year. In our next post, we’ll have a look at it from Montblanc’s perspective and see why it’s also a pretty stupid choice for them to make. I’ve reached out to both parties to comment publicly, no takers at this stage. 

What happened

Over the course of January and early February, several threads appeared on FPN’s Montblanc forum with details of upcoming, as-yet unannounced products. Some of the posts appeared to have reliable information: specific product details, photos, were posted by well-known users, and corroborated by other users. Other posts had less reliable information, the sort of rumours that you see all over the web about all types of companies. (I’ll republish all of the product information at the end of the Montblanc post.) In addition to these posts were the reactions from users: sometimes enthusiastic, sometimes curious, other times disparaging. The reception to the Montblanc William Shakespeare (their 2016 Writers Edition pens) was particularly cool, even strongly negative in some cases. 

All of the information had the same provenance: users had visited their local Montblanc boutiques and were shown products, product announcements, or product catalogues. In some cases, they were shown information which was still embargoed. This means the boutique or staff member is breaking internal company rules, but when competing against other boutiques — selling an identical product at an identical price — the only way to win business is by having better relationships with your customers or by locking in pre-orders early. So the information flows from Montblanc to the boutiques to customers, who then share it online. 

From my understanding of the relevant copyright and intellectual property laws (gained during my last run-in with FPN), the forum users are doing nothing wrong. While the products and publications may be covered by patents or copyright laws, discussing the existence of such products is absolutely not covered and people are entirely free to do this as they please. Montblanc — or any other brand— can do nothing about that.

Furthermore, taking your own photos of a Montblanc product, even a patented one, does not mean that Montblanc have any legal rights to the imagery. If you were taking photos of copywritten material — like a sales brochure — and republishing that online, it could certainly constitute a copyright violation. But I followed those discussion threads quite closely and saw nothing like that being posted. 

So Montblanc had no legal rights which were being violated by the discussion. But they obviously preferred the discussion was not taking place, as it interfered with their marketing plans and desire to keep information secret until they were ready for the official announcements. And they were able to ensure that the discussion ended, by reaching out to FPN. 

FPN's chief admin, Wim, has posted to say that they received a ‘friendly request, no threats’ from Montblanc asking them to take down the discussions. My understanding is that this is not the first time they have asked FPN to censor discussions on the Montblanc forum: following legal threats in the past, FPN now routinely comply with requests from Montblanc to delete any threads or posts. It’s not clear to me whether they do so because they are afraid a refusal will lead to legal threats down the line. In the next section, I’ll consider whether this is a sensible approach from Montblanc’s perspective but, for now, I want to consider things from FPN’s point of view. 

The Purpose of Community

For a while now, I’ve been thinking about why a fountain pen community exists at all — why we aren’t all just independent enthusiasts doing our own thing, as with many other hobbies. I’ll expand on my answer in a future post, but I believe that the central driver of this is the need for information. There is so much information necessary — about the brands, the products, the retailers, etc. — that it’s often impossible to make an informed decision as an online buyer. So we try to source information from others and determine whether or not a particular purchase will be a sensible decision. Not necessarily because vendors or products are unreliable, more because we’re not sure what will suit our preferences. There’s a strong sense of reciprocity at work: most of us only get into the hobby with the help of others, and we feel it is appropriate to pay it forward by sharing what we know with others. At first, we are communicating basic information with those who have come into the hobby after us. With time, we have more unique experiences and that gives us knowledge which will be valuable to others, both beginners and experts.

The purpose of the the community is therefore to facilitate the flow of information, from those who have it to those who can use it. And the various platforms that we use to communicate — FPN, reddit, podcasts, Youtube blogs, twitter, Facebook groups, Slack rooms, etc. — all essentially exist to help facilitate that information flow.

Now, my moral worldview is essentially teleological: if an entity (a business, a website, a blog, etc) has a purpose than we can reduce questions of what it should or shouldn’t do to questions about what best enables the entity to pursue its purpose. That entity is doing the right thing whenever it undertakes activities which enables it to better pursue or achieve its purpose; when it does things which interfere with its ability to achieve that purpose, those activities are wrong. 

From this perspective, I think we can critique FPN’s decisions and say that they are morally wrong. By censoring discussions which enable users to make more informed decisions about their purchases — especially when those discussions absolutely do not violate copyright, trademark, or patent law — FPN is inhibiting the flow of information from those who have it to those who can use it. That goes against the very purpose of the community and of the site’s very existence. 

The Quid Pro Quo

Wim has tried to argue that there may be some benefit to this craven submission and touted a possible, upcoming conference between FPN and Montblanc in early April. All of this has a sly suggestion that the costs of censorship might yield some kind of benefits for the forum users, something which will make it all worthwhile.

He’s not provided any detail and I’m happy to guess that we will never hear anything more about it — that meeting is unlikely to ever happen and Montblanc would never voluntarily provide FPN with exclusive access or any privileged information. If they saw some benefits to feeding information into the forum, they probably wouldn’t have shut down the discussion of the products in the first place. 

‘Early April’ is an oddly specific and distant date, given we’re only in February. I’m sure it’s a total coincidence that the most-discussed product of the deleted threads — the upcoming Montblanc Rouge et Noir pens, in black resin, coral resin, black hard rubber, and titanium, released to celebrate the brand’s 110th anniversary — debuts in early April. As I’ve said in reply to Wim’s post, if he does hear from Montblanc it may just be them permitting us to discuss the product now that it has been officially released, a kind gesture from our benevolent overlords. But, from my perspective, the FPN users are getting royally screwed by this decision but the admins expect us to say thank you once they’ve finished. 

Beyond Montblanc

This isn’t an isolated example, either. Since making some noise about this issue on social media, I’ve had contact from other FPN readers (or ex-readers, in several cases) who have made it clear that this is a policy which goes well beyond Montblanc. Other brands or their distributors have been able to convince FPN that they should remove content from the site. It’s not clear whether these other examples are cases of FPN removing content that violates copyright (an entirely appropriate practice), removing content about upcoming products, or removing content that companies simply don’t wish to see come up in a Google search.

What I do know is that FPN has a strict policy about protecting vendors in the industry — not just brands — and I believe this is a harmful practice. Indeed, I have personal experience of being harmed by it. Early on in my FP days, I came across Greg Minuskin’s website with some interesting vintage pens. Not being aware of who was reliable, I searched on FPN and only found positive information about him. I then decided to try and make a purchase, and had my worst-ever experience with a vendor — enough that I will never again purchase from him and actively recommend that others do not do so. 

At the time, I struggled to understand why my experience of him was so poor and yet others only had positive experiences. Further searches through FPN yielded nothing, and I was left confused for months — until someone posted about him on reddit. You can still see that thread today and I recommend anyone considering his outfit read it before, as well as the follow-up thread from a few days later. Other people had had awful experiences with him. He may do good work on occasion but his attitude towards his ‘customers’ is awful, and one which should be known by people before they deal with him. 

I now know that the reason his reputation on FPN was so positive was because of rules which specifically prohibit “naming and shaming posts” where users are able to share negative experiences they have had with particular brands, retailers, and others active in the industry. In other words: you could rip someone off on FPN and the site would prevent that person from publishing a post which warned others against that behaviour. And if you were unhappy with their approach, it was bad luck — because they also have a rule against arguing with their decisions. (Apparently FPN, like God, make no mistakes.)

Conclusion

In my opinion, FPN simply does not understand that it’s purpose in this community is to be a place where information can be shared and where users can be empowered to make informed decisions about how they spend their money. There’s a lot of sharing and friendships formed in the midst of everything, but that’s their core function. It’s why they exist. 

The decisions that they make — enabling brands to censor entirely legal discussions, prohibiting honest experiences from being shared — actively work against that purpose, and in my view are completely and utterly wrong. It’s no surprise that in enforcing these rules, FPN’s audience is diminishing despite the wealth of knowledge contained in the forums and the astronomical growth in the online pen community. 

Personally, I’m not sure the folks who run FPN really understand why their site exists or what they means for how the site should be operated. More importantly, I’m not sure they understand the expectations of their users and potential users — particularly the ones who have sampled FPN and opted to spend their time on other sites, where there is less information and expertise, but where information and passion are more easily shared. 

In our next post, we’ll look at Montblanc’s role in all of this. 

Addendum

I wanted to include a later thought, which some of you may share. FPN is, essentially, a volunteer-run organisation, one with minimal advertising and subscription revenues and no funds to fight back against a legal challenge. There is an argument which could be made, saying that FPN effectively has to give in to threats of legal action, veiled or otherwise, because they simply don’t have the resources to fight. 

I’ll consider the likelihood of Montblanc bringing action in the next post. Suffice it to say, I think such a move would be about as stupid as they come, but not out of character for the brand. They could recognise FPN as a platform and issue a DMCA takedown notice or they could target FPN more directly (and perniciously) by threatening litigation. Either move would be, in my untrained legal opinion, destined to fail if it was fought in court. But without financial or legal resources, FPN would not be in a position to adequately defend themselves. 

So I think the right move would be to fight as far as possible while avoiding the expense of a legal defence: announce the threats publicly, share details, and seek input from the many lawyers who are active on the forum. FPN could make the exercise as costly for Montblanc as possible — in their own legal fees, as well as the publicity costs of a brand attacking its own customers — without appointing counsel or incurring other expenses themselves. It would not necessarily lead to an outcome where the posts remained online, but at least it would demonstrate that FPN is prepared to defend its users interests as best it can.