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.
Let’s talk about Wikipedia.
Wait, wait, wait! Don’t run away! At least not yet!
I know that the subject has already been beaten into the ground. Repeatedly. I know that the majority of people are either tired of the entire debate, or only growing more upset the more they hear about it. And, honestly, I’m halfway in both camps – equally frustrated by the situation itself, as well as all the drama (often meaningless) it’s creating.
So why, then, am I writing about it?
That’s a very good question.
Quick summary for those who somehow missed the rest of the drama: Wikipedia has had a tendency to delete non-notable webcomics listings from their site. Their definition of non-notable clashes significantly with that of the webcomic community itself. Thus, conflict.
One thing I’ve noticed, recently, is that many people seem to have a hard time pinning down the purpose of webcomic listings on Wikipedia. They aren’t there to lead people to the comic – if you are listed on Wikipedia, it isn’t going to get you any noticable new traffic. It is a nice mark of accomplishment – but a webcartoonist who has thousands of readers should feel that regardless of whether Wikipedia recognizes them as notable or not.
The primary use of those Wikipedia entries, in my mind, is to provide information. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia. It is a catalogue and compilation of information. With the majority of its topics, that information isn’t something easily found elsewhere on the web. If I am trying to learn about a specific novel, and I don’t have that novel on hand, Wikipedia just might have an entry with some valuable information.
I don’t go to Wikipedia to find new books to read – I go there to find information about books I already know about.
When I go there looking for webcomic information, it is usually to dig up random facts about the webcomic itself. When it began, names of characters, etc.
All information, by and large, that I would much rather have on the webcomic’s site itself. After all, webcomics are on the web. If I can get to Wikipedia, I can get to the webcomic’s homepage. In a perfect world, everything I need to know about a strip would be right there next to the archives.
Unfortunately, many webcomics don’t have much more than the bare bones around. They’ve got archives, and usually a forum or place for comments. If we’re lucky, a cast page (which, more often than not, isn’t up to date).
If I get more than that, I count it as a genuine accomplishment. Having a storyline guide, detailed character pages, searchable archives – those are amazing things. But generally, the webcartoonists are too busy with, say, actually producing new material (entirely for free), and simply don’t have the time, energy, or know-how to put those features in. I can’t complain about it – that’s just the way it is.
It would be nice if every webcomic had all the info we needed right there on the page, but it just isn’t going to happen.
Hence why I go hunting through Wikipedia. Or, with Wikipedia yanking out entries left and right, to Comixpedia.org. Gilead Pellaeon, over at the Webcomicker, gives his own response to the matter – he plans to work hard at fleshing out Comixpedia.org and the information there. Which is an idea I can certainly get behind, and I plan to do my own fair share of work on the database there.
There have been those who have… well, let’s not say criticized, but rather, been dubious of the use of Comixpedia.org. The arguments have often been that it isn’t going to do what Wikipedia does, and that only people already in the webcomic community will even know about the page.
But that’s ok. The purpose of Comixpedia.org is to be a collection of information on webcomics. Not a guide to introduce us to the outside world, not a guide to lure newcomers into the fold. Which isn’t to say we don’t need more along those lines – but being posted on Wikipedia certainly didn’t do that. It collects knowledge in a place we know where to find it.
The more people working on it, the better a tool it is. Gilead’s got the right idea. If you want to worry about notability at Wikipedia… well, go for it. I do agree that their current standards are fundamentally flawed, regardless of whether the concept itself is or not. But I think Wikipedia is a lot less important to us than we think – and while it is easy to feel it is a personal attack, the amount of energy wasted on the matter could be put to far better use.
Like fleshing out the websites of the comics themselves. Or working on Comixpedia.org. Or finding new and innovative ways to draw people into webcomics.
I suspect if we could spend half the time being productive as we do ranting, we’d see a world of difference.
I suppose I should be talking about Platinum Studios.
At first, I couldn’t really get why it merited such uproar. I mean… ok, so they had a relatively silly article that didn’t pay much attention to the current existence and success of numerous online comics.
Ok, haha, pretty much everyone within this community knows they are full of it. I didn’t really see why that merited more than, say, one day of internet mockery. Why did it keep coming up all week long?
But listening a bit more carefully, I realized maybe it does merit a bit more discussion.
On the upside, maybe this genuinely will bring a bit more mainstream attention to webcomics. Even if they misrepresent the current status of webcomics, Platinum seems to like its PR, and will likely be trying to draw in as much attention as it can. If that does success in raising webcomic awareness, that is pretty much a solid plus.
On the downside, Platinum may have a tendency not to deal entirely evenly with their artists. I don’t really know the details of their plans for the web, and how fairly their deals will be with burgeoning webcomic creaters, but if it does look like they plan to grab some hot properties and shaft the artists, thats worth keeping an eye out for.
But as for the rest, we get to sit and wait and see what happens.
This year’s Webcartoonist’s Choice Awards are just now winding down (winners announced, ceremony on its way.)
Scandal and controversy has been abounding (which is to say, there have been some minor hiccups in the works this year.)
In spite of this, I’ve generally been pleased with the event and found the results perfectly acceptable (despite only about half of the comics I was rooting for taking home the gold.)
All in all, despite the delays and confusions abounding the ceremony this year, I like the fact that we have the WCCAs. It is one of those nice little corners of the webcomics world, and for an event that, like most online cartooning itself, is volunteer driven, it is a lot of fun for a lot of people.
Would I like it to be a bit more organized? Sure. Would I like to have the ceremony right off the bat, rather than simply a list of winners? Certainly.
But I don’t think the experience is ruined by it. Given that there wasn’t even a ceremony two years back, I’m happy just to have one on the way.
So maybe I’m just an optimist. But one way or the other, I see a lot of good comics getting some solid attention and recognition, and that’s a good thing any day of the week.
That said, he is currently having a guest month storyline done, and giving the guest artists a share of the donations that come in during that time.
Now that’s pretty cool.
In Other News…
Man, I’m just glad all the crazy in-your-face drama has died down to everyone having a good laugh at each other… or whatever the current state of things is.
Seriously, if only WvW was here to save us all, and/or set us back at each others throats. Is it a shame that such a brilliant thing fell into nothingness, and was left only as a repository for redundant spam?
While I’ve still got a few more thoughts to finish up on the nature of webcomics, I thought I would give my opinions on the latest controversy in webcomics drama.
T Campbell, webcomics aficionado, has been an important figure in the webcomics industry. He has produced numerous comics, some more notable than others. He has also had a variety of pet projects, seemingly always trying to expand the technology available to the field. He has collaborated with many other comic artists and authors, served as editor of Graphic Smash, and in general, been doing everything he can to help make better comics, and help make comics better.
His latest work is possibly one of the most important to date – the History of Webcomics. A book that will, presumably, attempt to cover the important people and events in webcomics history. A relative brief history, admittedly – but time moves quickly on the internet, and there are surely events and change enough to discuss.
The latest controversy involves the two creators of Megatokyo, and their breakup as a creative writing team, and what the facts are behind the matter.
Now, I haven’t actually read the book. I haven’t actually seen what it says, so I can’t say, for myself, exactly how well it covers the situation. Scott Kurtz and Rodney Caston and T have all said their pieces about exactly what is going on.
Essentially, the dispute at hand is that T compiled much of his information from impersonal fact finding – reading websites, observing dialogue, and so forth. He had some interviews – but many important people (such as Rodney, the ‘forgotten’ member of the Megatokyo team), were not contacted or consulted. The question at hand is, in short – how valid will his book be as a history?
Now, I can understand that interviews could become too much. When you are attempting to chronicle the history of thousands of webcomics, I can see far too great a difficulty in trying to interview every single person involved.
But part of T’s explanation is that he came to distrust the interview process itself. He had to deal with too much ‘spin’ – too many people trying to put themselves in their best light. And admittedly, that is one of the hard things about an interview – it is getting one person’s opinion alone, and only one side of the story.
However… that is no different, in my opinion, than any other source of information T could use. Blogs and newsboxes and comics and rants – every single one of those will be just as full of ‘propaganda.’
Typed words are not somehow exempt from inaccuracies. Typed words do not ordain the utter truth. In many ways, written word is often more likely to be part of putting one’s ‘best face forward.’
There are no unbiased sources, and part of the work of assembling a collection of facts about the situation is compiling as many different sources as possible in order to see the bigger picture.
Which is possible, in theory, with or without interviews.
But when Scott describes what he has seen of the book – such as chapter 3, which covers the seven most important people in the creation of the industry… there seem to be a few names that are missing. Some names are weighted more than others. And the question arises – in light of the lack of consultation with certain involved entitied, how much of the information the book contains is influenced by the bias and perspective of the author himself?
And the answer is, well, all of it. Duh. He is writing the book. It’s impossible, in many ways, for an author to distance themselves one hundred percent from what they write. Every history book ever has been similarly influenced.
However – that does not mean that they shouldn’t try. That doesn’t mean they should not seek out every single possible bit of information to try and get, if not an accurate picture on things, at least as accurate as perspective as possible.
And in my mind, failing to even contact ‘Largo‘ demonstrates a break down in his research. When dealing with how the split between Rodney and Fred occured, just looking at the seperate descriptions on their respective sites shows me distinct omissions and different portrayals of what happened. The truth is no doubt somewhere between the two – yet it strikes me as difficult to really find the heart of the matter without digging a bit deeper than the surface.
Is this an area that should be pursued, of importance enough to the “History of Webcomics” to merit fact-finding? It is hard to say. But when one of the creators of one of the most successful webcomic strips is left out as an influential figure in the early days of webcomics, it does leave me questioning exactly what spin on things the work is taking – and what other such ommissions may exist.
I agree with a lot of the things that Kurtz says in his rant – there seem to be views in the book that I won’t agree with. And I can’t say for sure until I truly read the book – and I can’t fault T for having his own opinions – but that worry is there.
Of course, I think Kurtz, as usual, comes off way to strong, running out with both guns blazing at the slightest alarm. He accuses T of just trying to ride the webcomics world to fame and fortune, an accusation as ludicrous as it gets. He accuses T of various deceptive information in the advertisement for the book – but in the end, thats the nature of advertising. Were there significant mistakes made with that ad? Well, yes. Not seeking permission, hyping inaccurate facts – definite mistakes.
But ones that T recognized and apologized for as soon as they were pointed out to him. I don’t think he actively thought that it would be easier to seek forgiveness than permission – I don’t think it even occured to him. I think it was overlooked in his eagerness to finish creating this project that he has invested so much in.
T Campbell has always struck me as desperate – as eager – to do all he can for webcomic world. On a lot of counts, he has succeeded. He has accomplished some amazing things. He has an intense dedication to the industry – not to his works in the field, but to the industry as a whole. That is more than could be said for many, many people out there.
I don’t think he would ever intentionally go out of his way to harm another in the field by his actions – but sometimes carelessness can be as great a danger.
He has talked about his greatest fear – to one day discover that he has misplaced his principles without even noticing. One of these goals – to give credit where credit is due.
Did he fail here? Again, I can’t say for sure until I’ve read the book.
But the fact that this discussion has even come up bodes poorly. There will be a taint on his work from this – from worries over how valid it is, how accurate. From those who wonder how they may have been misrepresented without consultation. From those who disagree with the views T shares in his book, and the methods he used to research them.
For myself, I think that the book will be filled with a lot of good information. I suspect it will be valuable resource for a lot of people, and that the goal of the work – to help people – will be met.
But again – from the discussion thus far, it does seem as though the work will not be as complete as it could have been. Which is a shame – though, in my opinion, a forgivable one… at least by myself. But I’m just a student of the field, not one of those directly harmed.
The book is already in its final stages. I don’t suspect much could be changed at this point, so whatever damage may have been done… is done.
When explaining his greatest fear, T made a request of his friends – to tell him when he has made a mistake.
Now, I can’t lay claim to being his friend, or anything more than a concerned outsider. I’ve met him once, at a con, when I was just another fan, and that has been the extent of my contact with him.
But I do want to give him my thoughts. I think a mistake was made in not seeking out more direct consulation with those discussed in the book. With not, at least, giving them the chance to give their perspective on the words written about them.
I don’t think it will be a fatal mistake. I don’t think the industry will abandon T because of this. I suspect he will have as many on his side as not… and that, eventually, the drama will die down, and be, for the most part, forgotten. Some friends may now be merely associates, but others will stay true, and T will still remain one of the prominent figures in the community. The book itself will succeed, by and large, and be treated by many as the resource it was meant to be.
But I still feel a mistake was made. And if nothing else, an apology is due to those wronged.