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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Bear Seduction and the Copyright Conundrum

Posted By on Tue, Jun 12, 2012 at 11:00 AM

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This probably will stand as the best story of the week: Ars Technica reports that Matthew Inman, creator of the web comic "The Oatmeal," has raised $100,000 from his fans to counter a lawyer's demand that he fork over $20,000 to a fifth-rate website that Inman had complained was stealing his work.


None of the money will go to the site, or to the lawyer, whose claim of "defamation" was of course prima facie ridiculous. Rather, Inman will give half to the National Wildlife Federation and half to the American Cancer Society. This is in part based on the comic he drew depicting his conception of the lawyer's mother seducing a Kodiak bear. He dubbed the whole thing "BearLove Good. Cancer Bad." Sometimes, the Internet is the best thing ever.

But it's also perplexing. As Ars Technica's Nate Anderson points out, the episode highlights the essential conundrum of publishing user-generated content. It's a conundrum faced not only by tiny websites like the one in question -- FunnyJunk.com -- but also by big outfits such as YouTube.

FunnyJunk.com lets users post whatever they want. Many of them posted The Oatmeal. In fact, Inman found, practically his entire site was on FunnyJunk. Inman's no idiot -- he knows stuff gets copied and passed around all the time online, including his comic. But this seemed like too much, so he complained. The site's administrator posted a barely literate defense (essentially: "I am not responsible for my users"), but also removed Inman's work from the site.

The issue seemed be resolved. But then the lawyer letter arrived. The funniest sentence in the letter is the first one, where the lawyer refers to FunnyJunk -- which is so ugly it might pose a threat to the human retina -- as a "competitor to TheOatmeal.com in the field of online humor." He claimed defamation and demanded: "Deliver to me a check in the amount of $20,000." (The lawyer's name is Charles Carreon -- make up your own jokes here.)

In a South Parkian summing up of lessons learned, Anderson writes that the episode serves to "neatly encapsulate in miniature the issues for both creators and user-generated content sites." What FunnyJunk was doing seems to be perfectly legal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which protects publishers of user generated content as long as they remove material when a take-down notice is issued. But this puts a huge burden on copyright owners, especially one-person shops like Inman's. It's not an easy problem. If we allow people to freely pass copyrighted material around, people like Inman lose big. If we make sites like FunnyJunk (or YouTube, or Facebook) legally responsible for what their users post, half the Internet goes away.

It's sort of ironic that TheOatmeal is involved in this, given the recent controversy it found itself at the center of. Inman drew a cartoon depicting the thought processes behind the average person's decision to illicitly download copyrighted material. The subject of the cartoon tried and tried, but couldn't find a place to buy or rent "Game of Thrones" online -- unless he signed up for cable service, which he didn't want to do. So he went to a pirate site, and felt badly about it.

This served as the basis for yet another zero-sum debate over "ownership" as it relates to creative work. People who think the media companies are evil and clueless for restricting access to their material saw the cartoon as supporting their point of view. People who think all downloaders are self-entitled and amoral saw it as a defense of the indefensible. But it was neither: It was simply an accurate, and funny, depiction of our confusing current reality, where interests are impossible to reconcile and questions of "right and wrong" are almost beside the point.

Dan Mitchell has written for Fortune, the New York Times, Slate, Wired, National Public Radio, the Chicago Tribune, and many others.

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Dan Mitchell

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