Respect is not a weakness; compromise is not defeat.

So, there is a bit of a brouhaha that has arisen regarding a t-shirt produced by Jeffrey Rowland, overlord of Topatoco and producer of various webcomics.

The issue at hand is that Mr. Rowland produced a t-shirt design with an internet theme, which included a drawing of the O RLY owl. He recieved an e-mail, which may or may not be legitimate, claiming to be from the photographer John White who took the original photograph of the owl.

For purposes of simplicity, I’m going to assume the complaint is genuine and that John White does have copyright on the photo.

What bothers me about the entire scenario is that the response, when popular webcomics are accused of this sort of thing, is for the community to jump forward and say, “Oh, this is clearly fair use, and the accusers are just stirring up trouble with their claims.” But when an outsider attempts to do the same to webcomickers, the community forms into one giant fist to pound on them.

Now, I’m not saying that this situation is the same as the most recent scandal, because… it’s not. Todd Goldman stole art wholesale in an undeniable example of greed and plagiarism, and did so clearly without remorse. Rowland, in this situation, merely was making reference to a common internet meme, and likely didn’t even consider that the image might be copyrighted, and any violation was entirely accidental. So the two scenarios are most certainly different…

…but that doesn’t mean that Rowland was in the right.

Over at Fleen, Gary Tyrrell makes the argument that this is an instance of fair use. Specifically, that Rowland is commenting on the presence of the internet meme – and that since the image of the owl has so thoroughly nested itself (no pun intended) into the internet public consciousness, it is now fair game.

Of course – that would mean, by the same logic, that if a specific image from a webcomic suddenly became the basis for a wide-spread meme, there should then be no objection if it started getting printed out on t-shirts across the net, right? Right?

Well, no – webcartoonists would immediately get angry over this. They’d get roaring mad. Campaigns would be led, crusades waged. I am certain of that.

Now, I’m not actually saying if they would be wrong to respond one way or the other – just that the community as a whole would react in a completely hypocritical fashion from how they are doing now. It’s ok if one of our own does it, but criminal in an outsider. Even worse, when one of our own is accused, we don’t just disagree – we lash out at the attacker. 

I’ve seen it on several occasions – if one suggests that a popular webcomic might have snagged an image or idea from another source, they are showered with ridiculed for the suggestion. They are accussed of trying to cause trouble, or simply being greedy. That they aren’t just wrong, but abusing the ideals of copyright protection. That simply raising an objection to the use of their art is an act worthy of contempt or annoyance.

A while back, another member of Dumbrella had a similar situation – they had a number of t-shirts that featured various references to Star Wars. Lucas and company said “Hey – stop that.” Fleen responded by mocking Lucasfilm. Rich Steven’s own response was, largely, about he could simply claim the t-shirts weren’t about Star Wars at all. Sure, they were stylized enough that he could make that argument, or say that when he used the name “Chewie,” he certainly wasn’t talking about old Chewbacca… but whether he could make the claim or not, everyone knew it wasn’t true.

The t-shirts were about Star Wars. He was selling stuff to make money through references to another dude’s intellectual property. Now, were his t-shirts really resulting in a big loss of income to Lucasfilm? Of course not. (Though once they give others free reign on their copyright, that can be a slippery slope.) But hey – just because the one getting ripped off is a giant soulless corporation doesn’t make it right.

I notice, just as I am starting to really get my rant on, that over at Overcompensating Rowland mentions his plans to take down the design if the guy making the complaint is the real thing. So – hey, major props to him.

Because, really, that’s what I’m trying to advocate here. We make all this fuss about plagiarism and respecting an artist’s work – but you can’t just pretend those ideals are only true when you want them to be. You want to champion those ideals, then do so. Don’t make excuses about how pixel art can be interpreted or how your art being used for a meme automatically makes it communal property. Even if you do disagree with the claim, then present your arguments in a civil fashion – don’t freaking villainize anyone who dares raise a complaint against your crowd.

Show what you’re made of – here’s the chance to be the better person. Sure, it might be a gray area, as it is here. Sure, you can probably put forward a legitimate argument or excuse and keep your t-shirt in print. But what does it hurt to let it go, versus demonstrating your respect for another artist’s work?

So, Jeffrey Rowland – congrats on handling the situation with class.

And here’s hoping, next time, the rest of webcomics follows your example.

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8 responses

  1. Fanboy wank, nothing more.

  2. Jeez, William G., a comment like that after a tirade about respecting people’s opinions? Are you purposely trying to be ironic, or did you seriously check you tact at the door? At least say “why” you disagree if you’re going to give it a tactless, disgusting label from the get go.

  3. Well, since you insist, babycakes…

    Gary is generally a smart guy, but Fleen has a Dumbrella-shaped blind spot the size of Texas and nothing that gets published about them there should be taken seriously.

    Much like Rich Stevens before him, Jeffrey Rowland took someone else’s ideas and tried to make money off of it. The owner of that idea told him to stop and he did. End of story.

    Doing what you’re supposed to do doesn’t make you noble, and Rowland doesn’t deserve a hero cookie for it. No one should be portraying him as being unfairly picked on picked upon, nor portraying as a poster boy for Fair Use laws. The only reason to do that is fanboy wank: “I like his comic, therefore he’s in the right.”

    I figured it would have been kind of obvious. But I always underestimate the power of geek culture’s skewed view on reality.

    Happy now?

  4. William, I think you may not be as familiar with the concept of fair use as you think you are.

    Or maybe you’ve overlooked the definition in your rush to condemn a Dumbrella member! I know that you are a bitter, lonely, jealous man isolated in a far-away country but even you must recognize that the work is a) transformative, in that it does not use the original photograph, b) passes the amount and substantiality test, int hat it only resembles a portion of the original photograph, and does not use it in its entirety, and c)has zero effect on the value of the original work. In addition jeff’s work could easily be considered parody.

    Basically this would be up to a judge to decide, it is not as clear cut as you make it to be and I personally think Jeff is within his rights here.

    I have learned that anything you say about Dumbrella should not be taken seriously either. You are a troll who would do better to spend time working on your comics than attacking your fellow cartoonists on the internet. I dare you to come and meet any of the people you talk trash about at a convention or one of the many other gatherings and spend five minutes talking with them and see if your perspective is not changed.

  5. Wow, pissin’ people off eh?

    Rowland shouldn’t have used the image to begin with, legally, but it’s the ORLY Owl, whp’d’ve thunk the photographer was actually policing it? So good on him for being civil about it.

    He doesn’t deserve a hero cookie, but any cookies he has shouldn’t be taken away from him either.

  6. Ninja-Bot does a good job of summarizing my position – I’m not saying Rowland is a hero for doing the right thing, just that it’s nice to see him doing so.

    Honestly, William, your summary of the situation is a bit cut and dry for my tastes. Jeffrey Rowland wasn’t knowingly stealing someone else’s ideas, but when the matter was brought to his attention, he recognized the mistake and resolved the matter accordingly. Despite the fact the instigator was, in all likelihood, just a troll.

    As Jon argues, it was a gray area. Jeff could have easily continued selling the shirt, especially given how likely it was that no lawsuit would actually appear. Heck, if he had made a fuss over the matter, he might have even managed to send sales on the shirt design through the roof. Instead, he decided not to – because he felt it was wrong, if only to a mild degree, and because it was better to avoid the drama entirely.

    Now, considering the way webcartoonists often act, and considering just how fans tend to idealize them, can you genuinely argue that setting a good example is in any way a bad thing?

    For the record, I agree with you regarding Fleen. It is probably the single closest thing webcomics has to a legitimate news journal – but their credibility goes right out the window when Dumbrella comes up, and that’s a shame.

    But, just as Gary is always quick to see the best side of Dumbrellians (Dumbrellites? Dumbrelli?) in any given situation, you seem just as eager – if not more so – to see the worst.

    Sure, geek culture may have a skewed view on reality – but so do you. So does everyone, probably, but the fact that you are always putting your position forward as the single undeniable truth is exactly what drives so many away – including many who would otherwise agree with you.

  7. Their credibility? What are you all on about?

    Look, they (actually, individual authors) post blog entries, often those entries are statements of their opinions rather than an instance of investigative reporting. This is fine since it is a blog and not a newspaper. If you think the reasons they offer for their position are incorrect attack those. If you think it is a matter of taste and you have different tastes, say that. But I don’t know how Gary Tyrrell’s credibility as to his own opinions can be shot unless you think he is systematically inaccurate about whether he thinks the things he says. So, if you disagree, cite your disagreement, but don’t tag them with a phoney-baloney label of lacking credibility. I mean, that’s an ad hominem attack at best, which doesn’t undermine the arguments they give or positions they have, and since you haven’t actually established that they are somehow soft on fleen, what you’ve really done is basically just name-calling.

  8. Lewis,

    It’s true they are just individual blog entries (though, let’s be honest – Gary Tyrrell, at least thus far, is Fleen.) What I was saying is that Fleen, of all the webcomic blogs out there, is the only one that really comes close to a genuine news source, but that their bias towards Dumbrella being the primary reminder that they aren’t.

    Which, sure, they never claimed to be – I’m just putting out my opinion of what the site could be and what the site is.

    They are certainly welcome to their opinions, and I happen to agree in large part that the Dumbrella comics are certainly quality. That said, Fleen does come across a bit overagressive in promoting them – not just in paying attention to them, but in how they do so.

    Seriously, I cringe every time I hear Gary say, “If you don’t like , You Are A Bad Person!” Yes, I know it is done in a joking fashion – but that’s the sort of attitude really just rubs me the wrong way.

    Anyway. What I’m trying to say is that I wasn’t attempting to attack Fleen, nor even disagree with their opinion of the Dumbrella collective. Instead, I was just trying to indicate that Fleen is the one webcomic site that comes closest to legitimacy as a news source, due to their usually professionally and objective discussion of events, except that objectivity is usually lost when it comes to Dumbrella. I could be right, could be wrong, but I wasn’t trying to make an attack – just share an opinion and my view of the situation.

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