Webcomics and the perils of social media
So what happens when someone takes your webcomic and decides to propagate it all over social media? Sounds like a great way to get free publicity, right? Not so fast, homes. With the rise of Twitter, Tumblr, Buzzfeed, Reddit and other applications with names so silly you’d swear that George Lucas made them up, it’s much easier for someone else to get all the publicity while the creator gets bupkis. Shaenon Garrity writes about Rachel Dukes’ experience over at The Comics Journal:
It’s common for Internet denizens to share favorite comics and illustrations without paying much attention to the source. But some go further than that, actively deleting names, URLS, and even artists’ signatures from the work before passing it along. Most cartoonists, when they discover their work floating around the Internet without attribution, groan with resignation or possibly make an irritated blog post. But when cartoonist Rachel Dukes discovered that this had happened to a strip titled “Life with/out a Cat” from her journal comic Intentionally Left Blank, she crunched the numbers and shared the results in a blog post, “On: Image Alteration and Theft on Social Media.”
With a little detective work, Dukes determined that the strip first went viral when, on the same day she posted it to her website and Tumblr account, it got shared (with attribution) on the megaforum Reddit. The next day, it was posted to an image-sharing site called 9GAG with Dukes’s URL and copyright removed. From Reddit and 9GAG, the two versions of the strip—one with attribution, one without—spread throughout the Internet. A few months later, BuzzFeed, one of the major hub sites for links and images throughout the Internet, posted the uncredited version of the strip with Dukes’s URL printed underneath. Unfortunately, this meant that most people who reposted the strip from BuzzFeed did so without bothering to give it any attribution.
Using Google Image Search to track as many appearances of her strip as possible, Dukes estimates that the version of her strip with her name attached has been viewed 81,595 times. Nice numbers—but the uncredited version has had over half a million views. The credited version has had 10,700 Facebook shares; the uncredited version has had a staggering 347,984. The credited version hasn’t made it onto Pinterest at all, while the uncredited version has been shared 6,000 times.
So what’s the solution? Well, it seems that one must resort to that most intrusive of methods:
Dukes suggests that webcartoonists put watermarks on their art and/or place their signature and URL inside the panels to make them harder to erase. Some cartoonists incorporate their name and the title of the comic into the art in decorative ways that can’t be removed without making the edit obvious. But ultimately, the most effective ways to curb attribution-scrubbing are to educate Internet users about the problem and crack down on the less ethical image-sharing sites. Most people, says Dukes, share uncredited comics “simply because they don’t know any better. And that ignorance is exactly what 9GAG is banking on.”
Ultimately, Dukes remains enthusiastic about the connectedness of online communities and the experience of making webcomics. “More than anything,” she says, “I think it’s important that creators keep creating despite image theft and alteration. But if we want to stop the complacency directed toward sites like 9GAG it’s important that we act as a community—creators and readers—to preserve artist rights and integrity.”
Frankly, I am personally no fan of watermarks. I think they’re effective, true. But they do tend to interfere with the aesthetics of any art piece, whether it’s a photograph or a comic strip.
EDIT: I wrote this as a response to one of the commenters on the above article. It’s still awaiting moderation as of this writing, but I thought I’d share it with y’all. It was about whether anything could possibly stem the tide of information sharing.
Technology has gotten pretty good at being able to parse out data, though. Just think of apps like Pandora or SoundHound that can detect what song is being played after a few bars. That same technology is what’s being used on YouTube to track down embedded music that’s being used without permission.
So why can’t something like that be used for webcomics? Sure, there are weird little spots on the internet that will always thrive and survive (I’m sure there are less scrupulous sites that will allow embedded music). But there ARE hubs. A few are mentioned in this article. Reddit, Buzzfeed, etc. It is not impossible to come down hard on these sites the same way the RIAA went down hard on YouTube. Install the same software to detect which images are being used illegally, and then forward on a cease and desist if it’s detected.
Now, that opens up another can of worms — namely public domain issues — but I think methods to stem sharing of images without author credit is very, very possible.