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.