Thursday, 8 March 2012

StockArt And The Internet Mob Of Great (In)Justice

A tweet from graphic designer David Airey caught my attention today. He was asking about a story that was evidently hovering on the edge of his memory, a murky tale from April 2009 of a graphic designer who cried foul until it emerged that he was a liar and a fraud. In the light of the current debate on IP legislation, it's well worth revisiting.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin.

The Plagiarist Who Sicced The Internet On StockArt

Once upon a time there was a naughty little boy called Jon who wanted to be a graphic designer. He wasn't very good at his chosen career, so he decided to half-inch artwork from StockArt to enter into logo design contests as if he was a real designer.

When StockArt found out what he was up to, they naturally billed him so they could pay the illustrator who had originally created the artwork.

Alarmed at the $18,000 bill and unwilling or unable to pay it, Jon did the only thing he could think of; he told a big fat lie. "Help," he cried, "the big bad wolf is coming to eat me up for his dinner! the stock site watchdogs ran across my portfolio and is now threatening to sue ME."

But everybody promptly forgot all about it and the problem utterly failed to go away no matter how much he ignored it. Six months later, Jon, who had not won any design competitions, decided to try to get some attention. That bill wasn't going to pay itself. "It's becoming a bigger problem," he whined. "I was banned from Design Outpost this morning which led me to start talking to clients. Apparently they're calling EVERYONE they can find to tell them I'm under investigation for copyright infringement."

Well the other designers, real and deluded, immediately got their pitchforks, torches, tar, and feathers out and went straight to the house of the evil sent a flurry of angry emails to StockArt demanding the immediate cessation of the legal proceedings. Few, if any people stopped to think that there might be another side to the story and didn't bother to check the facts, at least for a few days. They even set up a fund to raise money to cover his legal costs. But slowly, gradually, common sense began to trickle in as people asked why any law firm might leave themselves open to charges of libel and slander. Others simply wanted more details to keep the fires of their outrage burning. All of them wanted to know the whole story, and they began to ask Jon all sorts of questions, which he promised to answer in a blog post.

Jon had not anticipated this alarming development. He knew that it was possible to rouse a mob to a fever pitch of fury and sic them on the company that wanted to be paid for the images he had blatantly ripped off, but never thought about what a mob actually is. You see, people don't tend to think rationally when they're all riled up, but when the emotional heat begins to cool down they tend to do unwanted things like asking questions — and expecting detailed answers. But Jon didn't give them what they wanted. Instead, his blog post was really vague and he focused on how he felt rather than on what had actually happened, so the mob became suspicious.

Eventually, the story he had so carefully crafted began to unravel and Jon found himself increasingly ostracized from the designer circles he had previously frequented. He shut down his websites, cleared out his portfolios on the various design websites, sodded off, and was never seen again.

The End.

The upshot

'Nuff people need to make a living, and they use the internet to give them a bigger audience reach. The way in which the alleged villains of the piece, the illustrators who are registered with StockArt, make a living is by licensing their artwork. What this means is, someone draws a pretty picture of a squirrel or something, then someone else comes along and pays StockArt for the image.

I've drawn this thing on the left with my mouse on GIMP. I'm not claiming to be Rembrandt or anything but it's clearly a squirrel and if I made a bit more of an effort and vectorised it, I might even be able to sell it via a clip art vendor. Here's the rub: for about half an hour's work, Scrappy Squirrel here can be sold for anything upwards of $250 a pop. Such was the case in 2009.

Let me state that again: half an hours' work = $250 per download till the copyright runs out. If I made more of an effort and vectorized it, the job might take a bit longer. Three, maybe four hours. A day's work, even, depending on the amount of trouble I'm willing to go to. My cut of that $250 might be half, but still, it's the idea of being paid OVER AND OVER again for the same flippin' thing that raises the question of why that's the case. I mean, we don't pay in that way for anything else, do we?

Why is content different to any other product?

Think about it: you go to a shop and buy a bar of chocolate. When you have paid for the chocolate, you walk out, unwrap the bar, take a bite, chew it, then swallow it. Repeat the chewing and swallowing till the bar has been consumed. The item has been paid for once, is what I'm saying.

So why oh why is content of any kind, including my squirrel drawing there, any different? And while I'm on the subject, it might be worth trawling around to see if there are any similar images around because it is now possible to own an idea. A quick search brought up several images of squirrels with acorns, but not in the same pose as mine, so I should be okay unless there's someone in Manchester or the North West of the UK who wants to take a pop at me.

Back to the chocolate. Imagine you buy the bar and walk to the door to leave the shop. Security accost you and make you pay to leave the shop. You don't want any trouble so you pay. You unwrap the bar and are hit up again for unwrapping it. You share some with your friends, only to see each of them charged for taking a bite at the same rate as you paid for the bar. One of them films the whole incident on her mobile phone and you are fined for copyright infringement for displaying the torn wrapper of the bar; you've infringed their copyright by not asking for permission to display the wrapper and you've violated their moral rights because the wrapper is torn. That's the problem.

I've seen some blog posts you really need to read in order to understand how IP laws are stifling creativity and allowing Big Content to lock it up:

Open, moral and pragmatic

Vote fraud or incompetence in the European Parliament?

Emboldened by Megaupload shutdown, Hollywood targets Hotfile

Seriously, check 'em out. I don't condone piracy or IP infringement but I don't like the way our government is dealing with it.

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