“That feeling when you see something of yours floating around Tumblr with 70k notes uncredited.”
In a recent post, Chelsea Fagan identifies a feeling that everyone who’s spent time online has experienced (albeit in most cases with fewer zeros after that seven). My most surprising personal experience along these lines came when my cousin pointed out that “The 25-Year-Old Virgin,” a Tangential post I wrote, was appearing on the “Popular” feed of—wait for it—Pinterest. It’s still easy to find there, linked generically to Tumblr.com. At least the original pinner included my name, which appeared at the end of the Tumblr post; would she have done so if the essay had been posted to my personal Tumblr, where I wouldn’t have needed to identify myself as the author in the text of the post?
In many cases, photos move even more freely than text. In my job as an editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet, I’ve seen photos taken by me and other photographers nabbed and used for any number of purposes—including promotional purposes—often without credit to the photographer or the Daily Planet. I can’t get on a very high horse, though, since I’m sure I’ve used other people’s images without permission. I try to be responsible about using only approved promotional images, Creative-Commons-licensed images with link to the photographer and the license, or photos I otherwise have permission to use—but when things get quick-and-dirty, especially on Tumblr, I don’t always follow such niceties.
It’s easy to feel like you don’t share in the guilt of credit-less sharing when the content has already been separated from any authorial credit. For example, who made this GIF of Juliette Danielle? Should I have credited the producers of The Room? God knows where BuzzFeed got this photo of a Coke can, but it might have been taken by a photographer who still owns the rights. Who made this meme? It’s easy for the link between creator and content to be broken, and once it’s broken, it can be difficult (especially in the case of images, but sometimes in the case of text as well) to reconnect.
How do those links become broken? There’s a continuum of means and reasons, from deliberate piracy to sheer accidents. It doesn’t help that most people who use the Internet aren’t that good at it; for example, how many people on Pinterest even know how to insert a source link? Further, there’s still a widespread, semi-conscious, perception that people who create content online are somehow all part of giant corporations. Comments on my movie reviews often seem to assume that writing online is a rare (“How did you ever get a job as a movie critic?!”), lucrative (“It’s sad that you feel like you have to make fun of great movies just so you can get rich from ad sales”) opportunity. Distinctions between me and Rupert Murdoch seem to be lost.
It’s a tough issue, because the freeness of access that makes content easy to steal is also what makes the Internet awesome. It’s great to live in a world where anyone can get 70,000 notes, even if it’s also a world where they can do so by copying a paragraph from someone else’s post. In the past, intellectual property theft was easier to contain because production was so cumbersome that it was hard to produce anything to meaningful scale without being noticed. On the Internet, you can quickly grab 70,000 eyeballs without anyone even noticing that hey, you didn’t actually write that!
Is there a way to keep that ease of access while also curtailing intellectual property theft? Hopefully. Technology is already moving to fill that gap. For example, the rise of embeddable content means that you can increasingly share videos, photos, and text without actually republishing that content on your own site. As tools like Google reverse image search and Shazam get better, it will be easier to find the original sources of images and sound files. Though many music artists criticize Spotify for paying them too little, the concept behind that service seems to point the way forward for licensing content: the content is hosted remotely, and users essentially pay per play (either through a fee or through ad exposure) rather than being forced to pay a full unlimited-play purchase price for every single item they ever want to access. Think about how that could be generalized to photos and text: if I want to feature an image on my blog, I embed it through a CMS that has access to major image libraries, then I pay a fee to the owner if, say, my post gets a certain amount of traffic or makes a certain amount of ad revenue.
My hope is that the problem—the Internet—continues to develop into its own solution. As more and more people get used to the idea that we’re all content creators, they’ll care more and more about developing both norms of conduct and technological solutions that help curtail content theft—that allow content to be easily accessed and shared, but with proper attribution and perhaps with a system for generating revenue under certain circumstances.
What would that system look like? I don’t know, but I suspect that eventually we’ll figure it out. No one likes having their shit stolen, and when it comes down to it, I don’t think most people really like stealing shit either.