Write Stuff – Glass Houses

For all that the Internet is awash with porn, dubious medical advice, and trolls, it can also be an unflinchingly moral place. Cross the unspoken ethical line and the masses will brandish their digital pitchforks without mercy. A recent case in point saw FunnyJunk get its share of jabs, but no one seems to have noticed the glass houses that got shattered in the process.

There’s no doubt that FunnyJunk deserved its online trouncing. As the Globe and Mail noted, the site hosts ??funny pictures? from around the Internet.? In other words, it doesn’t host original content. Instead, it gathers traffic by reposting other people’s work?including that of Matthew Inman, creator of the highly popular site The Oatmeal.

If you haven’t seen it, The Oatmeal features Inman’s edgy and starkly funny opinions in comic form. It might not be to your taste, but wherever you stand on the site’s artistic merits It’s got one huge asset that FunnyJunk doesn’t: original content.

When Inman got tired of seeing his original work reposted hundreds of times on FunnyJunk, he wrote a blog complaining about it. To its credit, FunnyJunk removed some of the stolen work. But it also left hundreds more of Inman’s images on its site.

So far, this was nothing that doesn’t occur daily on millions of sites. Then FunnyJunk lurched stupidly across that unspoken ethical line. In June, they demanded that Inman pay $20,000 ?for having complained about having his own work stolen for someone else’s profit.?

That’s when Inman cleverly turned the tables. He informed FunnyJunk that, instead of caving to their ludicrous demand, he would raise the money and donate it to charity. He posted his mission on his site and readers leapt to his defence. It took just 64 minutes to raise the first $20,000. Within 24 hours the total had reached $118,000. By June 21, and with four days still to go in the fundraiser, the total hit over $203,000, as The Guardian reported.

Inman chose two charities to split the funds between: the American Cancer Society and the Natural Wildlife Federation. According to The Washington Post, the lawsuit against Inman was dropped in early July.

And in this tale lies the curious dichotomy of online behaviour. On the one hand we are eager to add our voices and denounce the villain. In this case (and in countless similar ones online), the thief steals from the creator toiling over his keyboard or digital paint box, and gains from that creator’s work. we’re ready to tweet, post, blog, or donate to defend the creator’s right to his intellectual property; property that provides a living for the person who made it, as surely as if he were shingling a roof or fixing your computer.

On the other hand, though, we’re just as eager to steal that person’s work ourselves. Sites like FunnyJunk aren’t roundly ignored. Instead, they get millions of hits a day?and It’s often the users who are showing up with their digital pockets full of words and images they felt justified in lifting from other people’s sites.

Still, that doesn’t stop us from enjoying such sites. Book, music, and movie piracy are rampant too, but the general reaction when publishers or studios try to protect their rights is a huge thumbs-down. Perhaps It’s because in the case of The Oatmeal, readers could identify with Inman. He’s an individual, a person with a name.

Yet when it comes to the millions of stolen movies and books that flow onto our laptops and e-readers, we don’t see the creators as individuals. We conveniently forget about the thousands of people who work as gaffers, screenwriters, lighting crews, cover artists, electricians, carpenters, research assistants and makeup artists?all individuals who pay their bills and buy their kids? birthday presents from the paycheques our purchases support.

Did the good guys win in Inman’s case? Yes, but I can’t help wondering what the odds are that every single person who donated, tweeted, commented, or blogged about FunnyJunk’s business methods hasn’t ?hosted? stolen books or music on their own computers or TV screens.

Perhaps, if those screens shattered as easily as glass houses, thousands of writers, musicians, and artists like Inman wouldn’t have to go to such lengths to defend their property in the first place.

S.D. Livingston is the author of several books, including the new suspense novel Kings of Providence. Visit her website for information on her writing (and for more musings on the literary world!).

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