This past Monday, British comedian Adam Buxton (and collaborators including weirdo animator Cyriak) published a children’s counting song that escalated quickly.
Today Henry Birdseye, Slacktory’s social editor, showed me a 40,000-note Tumblr post, a stolen copy of the video below with no credit to Cyriak, Buxton or the other co-creators. This usually doesn’t happen with video, since it’s much easier just to embed the original YouTube video. To demonstrate:
The kind of theft that Henry spotted is a weird little emergent behavior that, I assume, came about because of the audience-building incentives on the web that have made it so easy and rewarding to copy people’s work and strip the context and credit, even when it would be even easier just to embed it properly like I did above. Like, even if I hadn’t mentioned the creators at all, that embed would still help them, not hurt them. The stolen Tumblr video, however, doesn’t really help them.
There’s a common phrase online, that certain memes “belong to the internet,” in the sense that they now exist entirely outside their original context, and seeking out that context is pointless. I don’t believe in “belongs to the internet” — I believe it is shitty not to make a minimal effort to check the source of something you spread along. But it’s like pirating music or buying sweatshop products: I know it’s shitty but I’m still guilty of it, most of us are, because it’s so convenient and the victim is so invisible to us, and my railing against it won’t really change that. So what will?
Usually this theft doesn’t happen to web video, just because YouTube did something more useful — they made it easy to copy someone’s video to your site but bring some important context with it: a YouTube embed lets the viewer click through to the original upload, and it carries any advertising and in-video credits and annotations. YouTube also made it easy for content owners to track down stolen copies. Web viewers usually only notice when it hurts them (like when TV networks refuse to put their good content online), and never notice the many times that it helps them by protecting creative people.
Tumblr has also tried hard to bake credit into the system, rather than leaving the user to an honor system. Their whole network is based on easily copying content over to comment on it, but they don’t want to destroy the value of the original content. That’s both moral and practical — if you scare off all the content creators and they DMCA you to death, you’ll be left with no content for your users to comment on. (This is a big reason YouTube developed their copy protection.) So if this video-copying problem gets larger (I have no clue whether it will), maybe it’ll become useful to Tumblr to build or license something like YouTube’s protection system.
And I really like that about both of those sites — they’re trying to stay sustainable, and to stay forces for good, by making it easier not to jack someone’s shit. And they benefit financially from making this moral effort, because it makes creators more likely to work with them, to encourage fans to spread their work via these systems.
I wish emerging sites like Imgur were as thoughtful toward creators. At a ROFLCon talk, I asked Imgur’s founder if he was making any effort to prevent theft or set up some revenue-sharing system like YouTube’s. Not only did he seem uninterested, but he acted like the thought had never occurred, as if he was only vaguely aware of this core use-case of his site.
Right now, Redditors are incentivized to submit direct links to images, because viewers can get to them more easily. But of course this removes context and monetization opportunities for everyone but Imgur and Reddit. The Imgur-Reddit combo is sucking bloggers like The Frogman dry as users combine his photosets into one Imgur pic, slap it up on Reddit, and reap karma while utterly failing to even acknowledge the artist’s existence. While the moderators of several subreddits (e.g. /r/comics) actively fight such theft, mods of giant subreddits like /r/funny either can’t keep up or don’t give a shit. And Reddit’s admins apparently haven’t made it a priority — there are actually warnings against submitting your own work, and quite few about stealing shit.
And Frogman has reacted with, I think, the ideal response: He’s inserted himself further into his work. So when you see a stolen Frogman piece, you still see Ben Grelle’s face, and even though Reddit has accidentally stolen his ad revenue (I’m sure the Reddit admins don’t want to be earning their money at content creators’ expense), Ben still becomes a little more famous with every viral hit. So eventually, these uninformed readers will stumble on his site and say “Oh, that’s where the bearded guy comes from!”
So there we go. We can at least find one appropriate response to this massive issue that shapes how art and technology work now: Theft-friendly systems encourage artists to insert themselves into their work. So many commentators side with one half of that interplay — either they say “the internet sucks because it devalues creative work” or they say “ugh artists, stop whining, no one owns information,” and both of those opinions are shitty. The truth isn’t in the middle, the truth is along the whole spectrum, and the people who catch most of its nuances are the people who will succeed in the long run. They’ll invent ways to route around bad behavior, making the moral way the easy way. My faith in this outcome is the closest thing I have to a religious belief. I just don’t think humanity will tolerate the crapsack world that is our only alternative.
Now go post this somewhere without my byline.