Monthly Archives: September 2009

What Do We Do About Plagiarism?

Yesterday I blogged about my experience at the 2009 Small Press Expo.  That post was commented on and retweeted by several readers, which I appreciate.  It was also reposted on three websites of varying legitimacy, by other people and without my permission.  That, I’m not so cool with.

Repost #1 – John Lessnau’s Traffic-Building Scheme

I don’t know John Lessnau, but his blog’s author bio states that he “create[s] web sites and web services that are evolutionary and revolutionary because there is too much warmed over crap on the Internet for my liking.”  More succinctly, his Twitter profile explains that he drives “web traffic and fast cars,” so his revolutionary evolutions must be working.  And while his recent tweets indicate that, like most of us, he’s not a fan of spammers, he apparently is a fan of aggregating articles from around the web and re-listing them in some kind of information buffet — my own included.

Lessnau’s About page cites him as the founder of two apparently successful text link ad services, which may explain his propensity for mining other people’s work for his own fun and profit.  And although I’m flattered that Mr. Lessnau (or perhaps one of his text scrapers) thought yesterday’s post was worth including in his list of “Articles About Making Money as of September 28, 2009” (as opposed to considering it more of the “warmed over crap on the Internet”), I find fault with his presumption that I (or anyone else) would naturally enjoy being linked to from his infoglut menagerie.

Mr. Lessnau states that I (or anyone else who’d rather not have their work scraped to his site) can use his automated contact form to request that my blog be removed from his “RSS resource list.”  Funny; I didn’t realize that the default online procedure was to build ad networks around other people’s work unless they choose to opt out.  In that case, I’d also like to opt out of any service that repurposes my video, images, audio, likeness and name, please.

(And yes, I realize he uses a picture of Tom Waits as his author photo.  That’s beside the point.)

Repost #2 –

Another blog-as-traffic-misdirector ploy, PulpLit reposted the first 491 characters (or 79 words) of yesterday’s blog post — oddly cutting themselves off mid-word — and then supplied a link to my full article.  Classy.

Their About page says: “Our objective is to provide our users with the most comprehensive database of sources to the comics publishing world.”  While I’m not really sure what that means, I’m also not sure who PulpLit is, since the only “author” they list is someone named admin.  (He’s the guy / girl / mongoose who “wrote” my blog post.)

Best PulpLit design choice: at the bottom of my hijacked post’s page, their three-column format is filled with the exact same column (of similarly “aggregated” material), three times over.  That’s the comprehensivest.

Repost #3 –

This one is my favorite.  Not only did they repost my entire article (without attribution), but they kept my original hyperlinks (and then added their own keyword links via AdBrite).  Alas, not all of their automated scraping goes so smoothly.  At least they had the good taste to use the same blog template I do.

So… What Do We DO About Plagiarism?

In Lessnau’s case, he at least invites people to opt out of his text scraping scheme (even if they never opted in).  The other two sites are no different from thousands of other ad farms, spam ovens, linkbaiters and domain squatters out there; I just happened to notice them because their spiders noticed me first.  This wasn’t the first time it happened and it won’t be the last.

You might ask, “But who gets hurt in this situation?  It’s just one website duplicating free content from another.”  Which is technically true, except that:

  • No one asked my permission to reprint my own work,
  • No one credited me as the author of my own work, and
  • All three of those sites are conceivably pushing ads based upon my work.

Not that I’m expecting to make money off blog ads.  (If I were, I’d have installed them already.)  But my words are making pennies per click for someone else out there, and I’m not seeing a peso of it.

The web’s inherently permissive culture, in which information is free and intended to be shared, remixed and reconceived, is unfortunately very exploitable by the people most inclined to abuse loopholes in the system — or to steal other people’s work outright.  And as much as I reject the strictures of copyright, it’s clear that something has to be done to prevent the bottom feeders from profiting at the expense of actual creators.  Creative Commons is a step in the right direction, but it still doesn’t stop things like Douglas Coupland’s conceptual theft from Ze Frank.

The onus of accountability shouldn’t be on the creators; it should be on the thieves.  I’m not entirely sure how we’re supposed to stem the tide, but I do have three suggestions:

  • Be vigilant in monitoring where your own work turns up online.  If you’re not credited, or if you feel like your work is being misused, demand that it be removed from the site.
  • Since most of us would go broke filing DMCA takedown notices every time a robot, scoundrel or multi-level marketer stole our work, I’d also like to suggest the creation of a Bloggers Legal Defense Fund (unless something like that already exists — anyone have any such links?)
  • License your own work.  You don’t have to be George Lucas to manage your creative assets all the way to fame and fortune.  If what you’re writing, filming or otherwise creating is good (or relevant) enough to be plagiarized by someone else, it’s good enough to be licensed for reprinting in other sources.  Think of it like “guest blogging,” but you’d actually get paid.  (And at least you’d have a tiny war chest built up for litigation during those times when an informal request isn’t enough to make things right.)

Anyone else have any ideas on how we can keep the bastards from winning?

UPDATE (9/30): In a stroke of irony that only the Internet could produce, this post itself has been listed as one of 50 Posts About Working with Video on the Web as of September 29, 2009 by Perry Multimedia.  If you’re wondering, Perry Multimedia’s services include “any form of project you may need help with that would utilize web sites, audio, video, CD Rom/DVD, video conversions, or even designs or copy for print or other forms of desktop publishing.”  So, really, every form of communication possible.

Doubly interesting: that list of 50 blog posts was scraped by something called The RSSdoodle, created by (drumroll, please)… John Lessnau!  (See Repost #1 above.)  Lessnau describes this widget as “yet another plugin that will bring relevant content to your blog in an automated fashion.”  Evidently, this “relevant” content can even include blog posts that expose said content as a legally-questionable sham.  Download yours today!

10 Things I Learned at the 2009 Small Press Expo

This weekend, I attended my first Small Press Expo, which is (according to its website) North America’s Premiere Independent Cartooning and Comic Book Arts Festival.  My friends Rachel and Josh went last year and they loved it, and since Baltimore is only an hour away from the event’s Bethesda ballroom, I joined them on this year’s trip down from Pittsburgh.

Being surrounded by hundreds of comic book creators, cartoonists, illustrators, publishers, writers, critics and fans was truly exhilarating, and not just because I’m a longtime comics fan who appreciates the indie scene.  A roomful of inspiration, creativity and self-actualization is naturally infectious, and meeting other creative people always makes me want to create something myself.  Thus, I end up leaving these types of events with a million new thoughts swirling in my head (and, in this case, a mini-comic about mermaid love gone wrong).

Some things I noticed, which may be applicable to your event / business / frame of mind:

People respect you when you do it yourself. Regardless of how talented you are, people admire anyone with the pluck to try something on their own, much less anyone who can earn a living on their own terms.  “Being an artist” is a universally romantic yet seldom-realized dream, so an event like this gives everyone who attends a chance to support those people who are brave (or delusional) enough to make their own rules.  (That said, it does help if you’re actually talented; people are far more inclined to support someone whom they personally think deserves to “make it.”)

Making money is allowed.  (Encouraged, even.) Unlike other web content creators who seem reluctant or unable to charge for their work, the vendors at SPX are unashamed to charge for their creations — and the attendees are unoffended.  Since everyone involved is either self-published or allied with a small press, all purchases help support people who make art for a living.  Nearly everyone I saw had purchased something, and lots of people were sitting happily on the floor outside the main exhibition hall, reading through their fresh stacks of brand new comics.

If there’s something for everyone, everyone leaves happy. No matter your tastes, this event had a book for you.  Vendors were selling comics about super heroes, sci-fi, fantasy, comedy, relationships, biography, parody, ninjas, animals, kids, horror, history, surfing, pornography and pin-up girls — and everything in-between.  If you couldn’t find something worth your time at SPX, you weren’t paying attention.  (How many events can you honestly say that about?)

Develop a coverage strategy when attending large events. Since this was my first time to SPX (and since I was conveniently broke and therefore unable to indulge my appetite for reading material), I was content to wander the floor and observe.  Rachel made two passes through the room — once to reconnoiter without buying anything, and then a second swoop to make her actual purchases.  And Josh beelined directly for the books he already knew he wanted in advance, making all his major purchases in the first half hour and then returning to explore the $5-and-under offerings.  Having pre-set expectations helped each of us find what we wanted, and we all left happy.*

There’s only so much time to talk. Josh zipped through the event without engaging anyone he didn’t want to talk to, stopping only at the tables of the artists whose work he already admired or whose work kept his attention for longer than a moment.  On the other hand, Rachel and I moseyed from table to table, inevitably getting embroiled in conversations with the artists about their work, their lives and their print quality.  If you’re in a hurry and don’t want to get trapped in endless conversations, be spatially aware of when a vendor has no one else nearby to speak to and nothing else physically to do — those are the times you’re most likely to get waylaid.

Longevity trumps talent. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you keep doing something long enough, even if you’re an average talent, you’ll eventually be respected as a veteran.  You can’t help but acquire knowledge over the years, and that wisdom — coupled with your obvious hard-nosed grit — will earn you generations of fans who admire you simply for fighting the good fight.  (Again, it helps to actually be talented, but it helps even more to get out of bed every morning and do whatever it takes to keep going.  Talent is singular, but tenacity is something we all like to believe we can achieve; when you do, you become inspirational.)

Different price points provide fans with different opportunities to support you. Dedicated fans are happy to pay $20 or more for your work.  People who’ve never heard of you (but like what they see) would prefer to pay less.  And products under $5 let people take a chance on your work without incurring much risk, or to support you fiscally even if they’re not your biggest fans artistically.

Be personable. I realize that people who create comics for a living are trained to express themselves non-verbally, but events like this are a showcase of talent and personality.  As interested as I am in your work, I’d rather talk to you for thirty seconds than watch you ink a page of your next issue.  I can always buy that issue later; I can’t talk to you again until next year.  (I know, I know: “There’s a thing called the Internet.”  But it’s not the same.)

Give me a reminder. People moving through an event like this are going to see a lot of media all at once.  They’ll be overwhelmed.  Provide them with a freebie so they can find you online later and learn more about your work at a time when they’re less informationally challenged.

We need more events like this. Not just for comics, but for all fields, artistic and beyond.  The communal energy of SPX is reminiscent of the kinetic energy at the first PodCamp, which started out as a meet-up for people who make web media.  The opportunity for like-minded individuals to meet in a common space and share their expertise with peers is rare, but the benefits — both professionally and intellectually — are worth the effort.

*  Admittedly, I didn’t have nearly enough expendable cash for an artistic smorgasbord like this.  Judging by the line waiting to access the ATM, neither did a lot of other people.  I should start a trust fund for next year.

Who Determines Value?

In a purposely provocative blog post, MCM argues that all content is essentially worthless.  The crux of the argument is the variation in price that different distributors attach to content — for example, a hardcover book is sold for $25, but a paperback for $10.  Is the content within that paperback book really worth $15 less than the exact same content in the hardcover volume?  And, if so, how much less (or more) is a digital version worth?

But before we can tackle price, we need to know: who decides *how* value is determined?

Everyone’s a Critic — and an Appraiser

Is value based on quality?  Or scarcity?  Or on difficulty of production, or of distribution?  There’s never been a collective agreement about *how* quality is determined, and now each of those spokes (and others) are being disrupted yet again.

If Stephen King can blog a novel in chapters, thereby cutting out the publisher… what should he charge?  What’s his actual work worth?  And does he charge according to the time he’s invested, or the difficulty of creation, or according to his own subjective estimation of his own talent?

If Radiohead allows fans to pay them whatever they’d like for an album, how do the fans decide what that album is worth?  How does that estimation differ if the listener has to pay in advance vs. paying a week after downloading (and forming a more educated opinion)?  Is there anything karmically wrong with considering a free album a gift from the band?

All Things in Their Own Time (and Place)

If I paid $20 for a hardcover novel, at least I physically owned it; an eBook or an MP3 might not be on my hard drive tomorrow if its publisher so decrees.  Is the value in content linked to my ability to possess it?  Or to the relative quality of its packaging?  Should content that “lasts” (like a CD) automatically become more valuable than content that doesn’t (like a live performance)?

Does content become more or less valuable over time, based upon the relative quality of other content?  Or based on fluctuations in its own relevance?  Jane Austen was underappreciated in her own time, but she’s a literary giant in ours.  Does that mean her stories have somehow become better over time, or that our reaction to her as an audience has simply become more amenable?  And, either way, how does this more recent fashionability impact the perceived value of her work?  (What if she falls out of vogue again next century?)

I happen to think Mad Men is one of the better shows on television these days.  Does it mean I think Mad Men is one of the best shows of all time?  Or, compared to what I might think the best possible TV show could be, what if Mad Men only rates a C+?  Does that mean the show is somehow worse than I thought?  And what criteria should I use when comparing it to TV shows from decades past?  Quality of acting?  Writing?  Set design?  Pacing?  Morality?  How does Mad Men stack up against American Bandstand or The Simpsons?  Or a book, film or album?  Can it even be compared?

Content may be worthless, but before we can even make that argument, we should come to some general understanding of what worth is.  Without it, we’re doomed to sell our own great works for pennies on the dollar while overpaying for what *they* say is “worth it.”

20 Things That Make More Sense Than Protesting

I leave Pittsburgh and the G-20 moves in.  That’s the way it feels this week, as the news wire is increasingly clogged with stories about police and protester activity leading up to this weekend’s actual summit.  And while I’d love to be home watching the out-of-town protesters clash with the out-of-town cops, destroying property that the locals will have to pay for afterward through increased taxes or budget cuts, I can’t.

So, in response, permit me (police state pun intended) to offer an open letter to the protesters, whose foaming-mouthed ire against capitalism, globalism, racism and most other -isms (except, presumably, socialism) is likely to create a lot of white noise and property damage this week, but not much actual progress:

Dear protesters (and those who feel like shouting while at home),

Protesting is, with rare exception, a waste of your time and effort.  The appalling political and socioeconomic atrocities you seek to call attention to (if not overthrow completely) will continue long after your minor show of solidarity accrues its obligatory minimalist press coverage.  What you’re upset about today will still be something to be upset about tomorrow, but the difference is, what you’re upset about has the benefit of international resources, global awareness and mainstream media control.

You have a hoodie.

Instead of descending upon Pittsburgh — a city that’s only now emerging from a decades-long coma of post-industrial demoralization, and which finally has a non-Steelers-related excuse for visitors from beyond the tri-state area to book hotel rooms downtown — and doing your anarchic best to topple the world’s most oppressive regimes by smashing the windows of small businesses, vandalizing police equipment and engaging in other counterculture activities that people with day jobs will eventually be taxed into repairing, consider this:

There are dozens of actions you can take, right now, today, that will have a broader and more tangible impact upon the world, the future and your own personal sense of self than waving homemade banners at the CMU Robotics Department will ever accomplish.  Here are 20 suggestions.

  • Audit the powerbrokers. Worried about a police state?  Take action.  Instead of trying to bash in the nearest cop’s skull, join your local Citizens Police Review Board.  (Your city doesn’t have one?  Form one.)
  • Get a job. You’re trying to combat global economic oppression by couchsurfing?  Quaint as that may be, if you can’t provide a stable income for yourself, you won’t survive long enough to elicit any real change.  Evolution takes time and money.  I know working sucks, but sponging off the kindness of others who do work for a living sucks worse; stop being a social parasite and other people may take you seriously.
  • Lobby for health insurance. Nothing brings a totalitarian state to its knees like redirecting defense spending toward health care for the poor.  (Plus, if you get your skull bashed in at the next G-20, you won’t have to wonder if the local ER accepts your COBRA plan.)
  • Run for office. I know, I know.  Heresy.  But here’s the catch: the existing two-party system has no reason to change because no one outside of it ever mounts a serious challenge.  A Libertarian, Green or Independent candidate is never going to get elected President or Senator out of the blue, so why not apply your ideals to local elections?  Long-term political success is what gets noticed, and long-term politicians are the ones who make the very rules you’re so vomitously opposed to — so get on that.
  • Read. And not just blogs; actual books.  (Even newspapers.)  Read varying points of view.  Seek out the contradictions among various sources.  Everyone has an agenda — even you! — which means everyone’s obscuring something and overemphasizing something else.  Form your own opinions, then re-evaluate them on a regular basis to make sure they’re still valid.  Life changes; so do beliefs.
  • Teach. If you know something, share it.  A lot of people out there don’t know anything at all.  How can you expect your ideas to gain critical mass if people don’t understand why your ideas matter in the first place?
  • Make art. Images say what words can’t.  Art transcends cultural barriers.  It affects us for the long haul.  And it doesn’t exist unless you create it, which is the antithesis of something (like a piece of public property) existing until you destroy it.
  • Buy local. The money you spend locally remains primarily in the local community.  Build up local wealth, trust and community, and then see what kind of regional change you can accomplish.
  • Vote local. What happens on the national level trickles down to your doorstep; what happens in your city council and your school board takes effect tomorrow.  Become aware of where you live, and make sure that works properly before you try to fix the entire nation.
  • Form a non-profit.  A few years ago, some pissed-off lefties started  Worked out pretty well for them.
  • Volunteer. Food shelters need servers.  The elderly need assistance.  Stray dogs need walks, politicians need envelopes licked and prisoners need somebody to talk to.  There’s no shortage of individual lives you can touch by helping.
  • Mentor. Children need guidance, so they don’t grow up to become desperate consumers and mass-media captives like their parents.  They also need to know how to tie their shoes, cross streets safely and play well with others.  No matter your politics, surely you can manage to impart the lesson of bunny ears.
  • Petition. When you rave in the street like a maniac, the average citizen tunes you out.  When you knock on their doors and explain your political concerns to them on their own porches, and then ask them for their signature… most of them still tune you out.  But 100 signatures borne from 100 conversations is more powerful (and meaningful) than 100 smashed windows at American Apparel.
  • Farm. Pissed off about Cargill, Monsanto and the other world food nazis?  Grow your own.  Feed your neighbors.  You’d be surprised how revolutionary a tomato can be when eaten, rather than thrown.
  • Rebuild. Look around your own neighborhood.  Find the burned-out playgrounds, the vacant lots, the boarded-up homes and the broken spirits of your fellow citizens.  Befriend your local councilman, grab a shovel, and make something out of nothing.
  • Donate. Everyone needs something.  Old clothes, used books, soup cans, blood.  Get creative.
  • Learn. Spurious as it may seem, not everyone in the older generations is a corporate demagogue.  The wisdom, experience and knowledge possessed by our parents, grandparents and other once-young citizens is on a timer, and their clocks are running down.  Once they’re gone, so go all the things they know that we do not…
  • Bike. Cheaper than a car, faster than walking, better for the environment and a built-in workout, all in one.  And at such affordable prices, it’s unlikely that bike manufacturers will ever get “too big too fail.”
  • Unplug. The world is a maelstrom of sound bites and disinformation.  Watching CNN or reading Daily Kos for five minutes is enough to drive anyone to drink.  Do yourself a favor: cut back on your information intake.  Focus less on the sheer volume of misery and injustice in the world and more on the steps you can take to improve things in your own backyard.  You’ll get a lot more done and spend a lot less time fanning the half-informed flames of frustration.
  • Fuck.  Because no one feels like firebombing a Starbucks after their third orgasm.  (Besides, if you don’t procreate, the Duggars will win by default — and then we’re really screwed.)

I’m as opposed to the strangulation of independent thought by the corporate state as you are.  All I’m suggesting is that you actually do something that stands a chance at improving the world, rather than venting your frustrations in a destructive and easily misinterpreted show of momentary force.  The people of the world need education and inspiration; they don’t need a drinking tax or a reduction in arts funding to pay for your week of public fist-shaking.

Yours in spirit if not in method,

Justin Kownacki

Freelancer, Humanize Thyself

One of the main reasons people quit their day jobs to work for themselves is freedom, which comes in all forms — freedom of scheduling, freedom of clientele, freedom to work from home in your underwear while eating ice cream from the carton at 3 AM.  And yet so many freelancers conduct themselves as though they’re a one-person office cubicle, unerringly PC, professional and polished as well as (or better than) any salaried employee with a safely-padded 401K.

Guess what: you’re not an employee or a one-man corporation.  You’re a person.  And one big reason companies like doing business with freelancers is that, when such a rare opportunity arises, people like to work with individuals.

Be one.

There’s a fear among freelancers that acting (or appearing to act) outside the “normal” boundaries will somehow derail your professional momentum.  Admittedly, that may be true for a vast majority of the corporations out there, who would have trouble justifying too much outside-the-box thinking on their expense reports.  But if you wanted to work with companies that only colored inside the lines, why did you jump ship from the 9-to-5 world in the first place?

Life is full of people who refuse to obstruct the party line out of fear that doing so will rob them of any chance for success.  So define your own meaning of “success.”  Make your own rules, and live by them.  Say what you mean.  Take stands.  Be an individual, whom other like-minded individuals want to work with (and whom opposing-minded individuals are free to respect).  You won’t be someone that every client in the world will want to work with, but the clients who do want to work with you will know (and want) exactly what you offer.

Because you can’t compete with full-service companies in terms of depth, breadth, resources or reach.  But you can damn well be yourself, and that’s one service a company can never offer.