Earlier this week a couple of my favourite web comic artists (Kris Straub and Kate Beaton) wrote about their experiences with stolen ideas – i.e. copyright infringement. Copyright and intellectual property in general is a topic that I like to read about and contemplate, and I have somewhat strong opinions however ambivalent and conflicting they sometimes are.
On one hand, sharing ideas through writing and art is one of the primary means of advancing society to higher knowledge, followed by understanding, and followed by—pardon the cheesy term—harmony. I oppose DRM controls on electronic forms of media and entertainment because paying for a song or a movie used to mean owning that copy of it, and DRM takes away that ownership and in my opinion thus takes away their justification for “selling” it. I support libraries, lend and borrow books from friends (physical, paper copies of the books and not e-books for the same reasons as songs and movies above), and donate books to charities so people can pick up things no longer suited for my shelf for a buck or two and help fund important organizations in the process. I also like to buy printed publications of web-based comics that are provided for free and available for reading any time online. I buy those because I support the art form, because the experience of reading from paper is richer than from a screen, because I want to have copies available outside of the internet and electricity, and because the choice of the artists to provide their work for free earns them my respect and I find them worthy of my patronage.
This is why attribution is important even when the work is provided to the public for free. Credit is due where credit is due, because credit is what many of these artists eventually make their living from. We can enjoy their work for free and share their work for free, but if we don’t link it back to the original source any potential for a new fan who wants to buy their associated merchandise gets lost. That is an ethical issue beyond the principle of acknowledgement of who created what.
I’m not an artist by trade. I don’t make any money off of what I create as a hobby, so the eventual economic side doesn’t apply to me. But the principle mentioned above applies to everybody who creates. Ideas are virtually infinite and constantly being generated thanks to both human consciousness and creative contributions to the public imagination. When the ideas generated are applied creatively, something comes of that because of the labours, however great or small, of individuals. Those individuals deserve credit. Parody is considered an acceptable form of using the intellectual property of others because it does nothing to discredit the original creators, and it’s only what’s added or changed for humourous purposes, as a creative act in itself, that’s attributed to the parodying individual. This is where a personal example comes in.
Two years ago I decided to apply a joke inside my head, “Keep the Han in Hanukkah”, to a visual form. I took an image of the famous pose of the character Han Solo from the Star Wars movies and edited it to replace his gun with a menorah. I shared that with the world via Twitter, specifically TwitPic, because I wanted to share the amusement. I never saw it go “viral” beyond my circle of friends, but a couple of weeks ago the image was posted on Twitter by actor Nathan Fillion with no attribution – in fact, there was a copyright symbol in his name that defaults as a watermark through the app he uses to upload photos. I replied to him asking for credit where credit is due, with a link to the original photo I uploaded that labels its original date through TwitPic, but I never heard a response. I lose nothing from this except an iota of credit among his fans (and whoever else saw it through whatever path it took for him to find it). If this image were ever capitalized on through merchandise the profits would not go to the creator. (I fully acknowledge the possibility of isolated versions of this popping up from separate people; Nathan Fillion’s image, however, was clearly identical to mine in crappy photoshopping quality and the exact same image of a menorah.)
I won’t even begin to veer into the area of companies whose products are made of rip-offs or references to other creative works that add less value than the money they make from it. I will wrap it up with this summary statement: stealing creations from others without credit is theft of dignity. Without credit is the key caveat. What’s put out into the public is free to share, but what’s not credited is plagiarism – by definition, a theft of ideas.