If you aren’t familiar with The Oatmeal then that’s a shame. It’s a great comic drawn by Matthew Inman. It frequently uses adult language and themes if that kind of thing offends you. Hopefully it doesn’t because then you can learn about 6 Reasons Bacon is Better than True Love and What We Should Have Been Taught in our Senior Year of High School. But if for some reason that kind of language or themes offend you then you shouldn’t read the site. And if it doesn’t offend you then browse the web site or buy the awesome book 5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth (And Other Useful Guides).
About a year ago, The Oatmeal wrote a compelling post What should I do about FunnyJunk.com? The issue was this other site (FJ) would copy cartoons, graphics, videos, and other assets from around the Web to place on its site surrounded by advertising. The original artwork was not credited, frequently edited to remove copyright notices, and generally just an attempt to copy others’ work to create money off the surrounding advertising. Hundreds of The Oatmeal comics appeared on the FJ site. Even then the blog post was a question about what to do and from the ending of the post Matthew concludes he needs to do something. The inference is he’ll write the site a request to take down his comics.
The saga continued when FunnyJunk informed its users that The Oatmeal was suing to take down the entire site. The Oatmeal responded as only The Oatmeal could respond but essentially they told everyone that they were not suing, just asking the site to stop. And while some comics were removed from the site,Matthew noted how many others remained.
The bigger issue identified by the artist is the difficulty and perhaps futility in policing the internet for copyright violations. That issue of how copyright is broken has been covered by many (including my own proposed solution in P-10-50) but it shows the real potential for damage in this case. Here, the artist stood to lose money by taking readers away from his site. And in many cases not giving the reader on the other site the opportunity to discover the original source by providing a link.
That said, The Oatmeal left it alone. Matthew tried, he did something, but he ultimately decided to focus on creating awesome comics rather than suing a website.
Then, this happened. FunnyJunk’s lawyer sent a letter threatening The Oatmeal over the original blog posts from a year ago and demanded $20,000 in damages. The Oatmeal’s response was to set up an account to gather contributions from his readers with the intent of collecting $20,000 but sending it to two charities instead. He also provided some detailed responses to the letter he received that you can view via the link but rest assured it’s hilarious.
The reader response to the collection effort was immediate and impressive. The target of $20,000 was reached in 64 minutes. A day later that amount is over $100,000.
All told, this is not a new story. A silly legal threat is ridiculed and loyal fans rally to the defense. But I think this story does have an interesting angle as it relates to Pinterest.
Pinterest and FunnyJunk are not the same site, of course. But at the heart of the sites are one common element: they both make copies of content available elsewhere on the web. FunnyJunk is certainly more obvious about how it makes money since it has visible (and intrusive) ads, but nobody is under the impression that Pinterest is building a site for charitable purposes.
And the message at the heart of the original post by Matthew is one that Pinterest should think seriously about. The fact is that sites which make it easy to copy from artists hurt the artist under the current copyright/content economy we have. Forcing the artist to police sites for their content is also inefficient. Sure, Pinterest has created code that a website can include to prevent simple pinning via bookmarklet, but it’s easily circumvented and there are many, many sites who don’t provide such code.
The bigger question is this: why should the artists have to opt out of this in the first place? Sure, they have the most to lose by copying, but the websites have the most to gain so why do we place the burden on the creator? Should the artist be forced to constantly update their web site to provide similar no-pin code for Pinterest clones and other similar sites?
This case also shows how an artist can be hurt by the copies but choose to be silent until provoked or sufficiently angered. This is hopefully a concern for Pinterest. Perhaps they haven’t fielded many major complaints about pinned content, but that doesn’t mean they’re safe. There could be large slumbering dragons with bellies full of fire. Rumor has it that Pinterest and Getty have been attempting to negotiate with little success. That’s just one dragon that may be waking up.
Pinterest has made the choice to try and have sites opt out of Pinterest rather than opting in. Perhaps when they were struggling to gain traction this approach made sense. But now that they have significant name recognition, perhaps the time has come for them to switch directions and instead only allow pinning from sites that choose to opt in to the site. I’m guessing with Pinterest’s amazing referral rates that many sites would still choose to be included while some could decide not to participate.
I’m sure Pinterest is going through a lot of growing pains these days. But now that they brought on their first General Counsel they can not only look at the strict legal issues but hopefully some of the ethical considerations behind those issues. Does Pinterest care about the upset yet silent artists that feel powerless to complain about another site? Only Pinterest can tell us what they think about this issue or what, if anything, they’ve learned from The Oatmeal.
Besides learning not to threaten The Oatmeal. That’s a lesson everyone should learn.