The webcomics blog about webcomics

The Half-Life On These Situations Just Keeps Shrinking

So, it all started a bit less than 20 hours ago (as of this writing): Scott Johnson of Extralife noticed a Zazzle store (it’s kind of like CafePress, except they can also print postage stamps) was selling a mug and a mousepad (and possibly other items) that lifted the art from his 2007 print, The 56 Geeks.

Word spread rapidly, as it is wont to do on Twitter. The store in question led to minor information about the proprietor, which led to a MySpace page and eventually a store page with contact info (note that depending on your browser settings, that last page may either immediately roll over to Zazzle, or just close). A sample of that store page, to give you an idea what we’re dealing with:

Here at Poison Art, YOU are what matters. The loyal customer, the one who appreciates the genious [sic] behind the artwork. At Poison Art we are all about supplying you with some of the most random, but most attention grabbing shirts, shoes, accesories, and more. There is no real theme to our products, just COOLNESS, so that you too can be cool. We are fairly new, and still getting ourselves organized, so the products are especially random at this point in time, but please, bear with us! When we get more products out there, it will be easier to sort through and create more understandable categories of merchandise.

If you would like to navigate our zazzle site, you can go directly through that link above, or use the quick links below. Hope you enjoy =)

-Poison Art Designer- Kelsey Armstrong

Okay, so Kelsey Armstrong is not so much of a “genious”, not much of a designer, and 18/F according to MySpace. Given that teens with access to the internet aren’t always up on the latest in intellectual property ethos, I sent a quick email (address withheld; no need to abuse the girl):

I followed some links at Zazzle to get this contact address. There appears to be a remarkable similarity between a design that you are selling and a print by webcomic artist Scott Johnson of “Extralife”. Any comment?

No reply as of this writing (about 19 hours), but as of 15 hours ago, the offending designs had been removed from the Zazzle store without comment. Contacted for comment, Johnson replied:

I get so disenchanted with “the system” when stuff like this happens, but then I remember, the system is a great big chaotic freak show, and I am lucky I don’t find that sort of thing every day. :)

What is it exactly that makes people think that because they found content created by someone else online, that they really liked, they have license to use it as if it were their own and sell things based
on it? It seems completely insane to me. For example, it’s one thing to share songs online with other people, it is another thing entirely to sell CD’s, t-shirts using other people’s music.

At this time it’s unknown whether Ms Armstrong actually made any money off of Johnson’s design (and it’s probably safe to assume that the use of Johnson’s work was more from ignorance of how artists rights work than from actual malice aforethought, thus we are unlikely to see her as a repeat offender), but we can at least take some lessons away from this:

  • Regardless of law, policy, or common courtesy, it will in all practical respects be up to the owners of IP to hunt down those who would appropriate from them.
  • The willingness of people to back their favorite creators and take appropriators to task means that time from discovery to resolution is shrinking. The Great Todd Goldman/Dave Kelly Contretemps Of Aught-Seven took 30 days to shake out (from first report to press release that everything was settled).

    The Great Jess Fink/Hot Topic Unpleasantness of Aught-Eight took 11 days. This one took about five hours from discovery to resolution, and hopefully each time we go through this, the word leaks out a little more — take inspiration, but draw your own goddamned art if you’re going to sell it.

  • We desperately need some case law to settle exactly what constitutes “Fair Use”; clearly, any reasonable reading of current US law (those of you in less freedom-loving countries are on your own, and in any event, I Am Not A Lawyer) would say that you can’t just life an image and sell it as if it’s yours. But what of transformations, or visual quoting? I’m thinking here of Jeff Rowland’s Internet design, which got a C&D from the photographer that originally captured the image now known as the ORLY owl.

    Personal opinion, Rowland’s design quoted the owl (and ceiling cat, and the general look and feel of the Ouija board), but in the service of commenting on/parodizing general internet culture, which is Fair Use. Or it’s not. There’s zero case law on third-party parody (c.f.: Penny Arcade and American Greetings) and we need it settled; unfortunately, the way to get case law is to first have a case, which means somebody gots to get sued.

In any event, this situation has resolved itself quickly enough (and about as well as could be possibly expected), so let’s call it done. Barring a repeat from Ms Armstrong, it doesn’t even require the coining of a The Great ____ of Aught-Nine to enshrine it in the annals of webcomics.

Quick addition to yesterday’s item on Xeric winners with award work online — although I didn’t find it, Alexander Danner pointed out that Tymothi Godek‘s “!” was published online in its entirety, and that the thumbnails for “!” may be found online (Blogspot and Livejournal flavors), along with a writeup of what “!” is about. Fleen regrets the omission.

Great write-up Gary. Do you mind if I cite this article in panel discussions about “getting your stuff stolen online?” It’s a good summary, and the linkage for deep research is solid.

Your writeup was insightful and very reasonable. Eighteen yr old girl with a bit of spirit should get an automatic freebie in the name of education from the School of Hard Knocks. She has now lived and learned, and Scott Johnson’s intellectual integrety is maintained. Wins all around.

I’m glad this was caught as quickly as it was. Good work Internet.

Disregard my previous comment about Mad Magazine cases (if it gets through the filter). I guess I see what “third-party parody” is supposed to mean here; though it seems nitpicky it’s a real concern.

Great article. It serves as good warning to everyone with an intellectual property to protect, on the internet or elsewhere – watch your back!

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