Tag Archives: legal

Now That Bloggers Are Being Taxed, It’s Time to Ask: Is YOUR Blog a Business?

Whether you blog for fun or profit, you may want to rethink your motives before your elected officials start doing your thinking for you.

According to the Philadelphia City Paper, Philadelphia bloggers are being charged a $300 business license tax, regardless of whether or not their blogs are profitable.  This means even Philadelphia’s casual blogs will now have to conduct themselves as businesses.

And while this news may initially seem comparable to a health inspector shutting down a 7 year-old’s lemonade stand, the truth is, Philadelphia just might have this right.

After all, social media has been begging to be taken seriously for years.

If you attend any PodCamp or other social media meetup, one of the first questions out of anybody’s mouth is, “But how do I monetize???”

And now that the city of Philadelphia is rewarding bloggers by classifying them as businesses (so they can be taxed, and so the city’s underworked accountants can have something else to do), bloggers naturally do what they do best: they complain.

All of which begs the question: why are you blogging, anyway?

At What Stage Does a Blog Become a Business?

If you’re blogging as a creative outlet, but you have sidebar ads… is your blog a business?

If your blog is a self-promotional tool, but it leads to direct consulting or marketing work… is your blog a business?

If you’ve never written a post in your life, but you employ autoscripts that crawl, steal and repost other people’s content to drive up your SEO ranking so you can charge for more blog ads… are you a business?

I don’t know many people who blog and don’t hope for lots of traffic.  But what do you need traffic for, unless you expect to (even indirectly) convert them into customers?

Do I think Philadelphia is being opportunistic, shortsighted and comically petty? Absolutely.

But if the blogging community tries to laugh this off, I think we miss an opportunity to look ourselves in the (collective) eye and ask a question so few of us bother to answer:

Why are we doing this, anyway?

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How NOT to Plagiarize Chris Brogan

Lately, several websites have scraped my blog posts and repurposed my content as their own.  I know I’m not the only person whose blog is being plagiarized in this way.  But I wonder if authors like Chris Brogan, John Moore and Tim Ferriss realize it’s happening to them, too.

Say Hello to Joel Goldstein, Marketing Douchebag

Last week, Chris Brogan wrote The Audacity of Free, a blog post about the flaws in a “freemium” pricing system.  But if you went to Joel Goldstein’s website, you’d think Joel himself wrote that article.  That’s because he scrapes and reposts other people’s blog content as his own.  (In Joel’s defense, this particular post includes the disclaimer “Posts are pulled via RSS feed from writer’s blog.”  But since the name or website of the actual writer isn’t included, logic would lead a visitor to believe the “writer’s blog” being pulled from is Joel’s own.)

Joel Goldstein vs. Chris Brogan

Likewise, Joel’s “Would You Miss Denny’s” think piece is really an uncredited scrape of John Moore’s long-running “Would You Miss [Brand Name]?” theme at Brand Autopsy.  And, unlike the Brogan post above, the Moore piece is reposted without a disclaimer referring to any other writer at all; it’s listed as having been written by “admin”.

Joel Goldstein vs. John Moore

But Wait, It Gets Better…

Unsurprisingly, this isn’t the first time Joel Goldstein has been caught plagiarizing legitimate authors.  Last month, Ajit Verghese noted that the “About the Author” page from the website for Goldstein’s book A Professional’s Guide to Social Media steals not one but two testimonials originally written about Tim Ferriss‘s 4-Hour Workweek and attributes the sentiment to Goldstein instead.

At that same time, Peter Kim accused Goldstein of plagiarising one of David Armano‘s Logic+Emotion blog posts.  When confronted, Goldstein evidently took down the page on his site that used Armano’s work without attribution.  However, judging by the URL structure of that now-missing page, it matches the structure of the Brogan lift mentioned above, which means it was probably a page created by the same blog scraper.  If Goldstein truly doesn’t think he’s doing anything wrong, as he asserted with Kim, he must also not believe that defending his position is worth the hassle.

Your Work Speaks for Itself

Chris Brogan, John Moore and Tim Ferriss are well-known and respected names in social media.  The relevance of their ideas and influence over thousands of readers is what makes their posts worth stealing.  They don’t have time to hunt down everyone who claims authorship of their ideas because they’re too busy doing actual work.  (Except possibly Ferriss, who’s probably too busy not doing work.  But I digress…)

On the other hand, Joel Goldstein (via his LinkedIn profile) claims to be a specialist in “social media, online branding and internet marketing” despite just joining Twitter in March of 2009 (unless you count his underused personal Twitter profile, which he launched in December of 2008).  Then there’s the matter of his chronically unwatched YouTube channel, and his business website that includes “viral videos” (yes, really) among his services.

Some people work hard to earn their reputations.  Others work hard to steal the reputations of those who’ve earned them.  For hacks like Goldstein to make a living by feasting on the grey areas that surround unlicensed attribution (or outright theft) of other people’s work is deplorable.  And for that, he makes our ever-growing list of Marketing Douchebags.

Calling Bullshit on Marketing Douchebags

Let’s face it: the Internet is crawling with marketers.  Some of them are legitimate professionals, whose years of experience and insight can help your business find new customers.

And some of them are just douchebags.

Lately, I’ve come across so many people whose “marketing efforts” (if they can truly be categorized as such) are so confoundingly desperate and /or blatantly unethical, it’s become aggravating / nauseating / downright infuriating.  I stare, mystified, at their fraudulent websites, stolen content and automated multi-level marketing schemes and I wonder, “Am I the only person who thinks this is all bullshit?”

Of course not.  It doesn’t take a genius to spot a charlatan.  It’s just that you just haven’t had the pleasure of stumbling across these same snake oil salesmen yourself.  But finding them just got easier, because now they’re on display at Marketing Douchebags.

What Makes a Marketing Douchebag?

The marketing world is rife with fraud by degree.  Lures, misdirection and overemphasis have long been employed to direct potential consumers toward the upside of a deal while minimizing exposure to the negative.  But that’s not the kind of age-old chicanery we’re talking about here.

To qualify as a Marketing Douchebag, the offender must:

  • Behave in a HIGHLY unethical manner
  • Offer services of little to no actual value
  • Pollute social media channels with useless crap
  • Claim experience that doesn’t match the facts
  • Give us reason to doubt s/he actually exists, or
  • Lie blatantly

Not that ethically bankrupt marketing is anything new.  Snake oil has long been sold in all shapes and sizes.  But when that snake oil comes with a URL, it’s much easier to dissect.

Why Bother?

As I mentioned at the end of my Socialnomics review, I believe in the positive potential of social media to improve the way we live, work and communicate.  But those of us who work legitimately in this field have to hold ourselves accountable, in terms of both quality and ethics.  If we allow the unscrupulous fast-buck artists to hijack the conversation, we’ve squandered our opportunity for change.  Don’t let the bastards win.

Ideas Are Worthless: No One Owns Anything

This week I highlighted several websites that are repurposing my content as their own, or (in a less litigious scenario) reposting my work without my permission as a way to increase their own traffic.  Surprisingly, I learned via the comments and Twitter conversations about this situation that a vast majority of the people I talk to don’t believe in intellectual property or the inherent value of ideas, and feel that piracy and conceptual theft are not only defensible but necessary for the advancement of humanity.

In the past, I’ve been a devil’s advocate on both sides of this debate.  I hate abuse of copyright law by corporations that stranglehold ideas and concepts, yet I appreciate the same law’s ability to protect individuals from having their ideas and concepts stolen and profited upon by those same corporations.  I even admit it’s illogical to argue that anyone can own an idea.  But now, after talking with Nick Pinkston, Steve Klabnik and Mary Hartney, I’m open to a new concept:

Ideas are worthless, and no one should ever be paid for them.

Our comments and conversations about this point were a bit scattered, but in a nutshell, here’s what I learned:

  • Tangible goods have value due to scarcity
  • Tangible goods have value due to physical production costs
  • Ideas have no production cost
  • Ideas are infinite, and therefore cannot be scarce
  • Sharing ideas benefits the world
  • Restricting ideas harms the world
  • Therefore, ideas — which are inherently worthless — must be shared freely

Note that, to clarify, books should not be stolen, since — even though they merely contain ideas, which are free and therefore worthless — they incurred physical production costs and are property that is legally owned.  However, books should be photocopied for free and then disseminated, and CDs should be burned and shared without profit.  (This is a paraphrase of Nick’s multi-tweet response to my book-related question.)

Given that, I’ve drawn the following conclusions:

  • Artists, authors, musicians, politicians, philosophers and linguists produce no work of actual value, and therefore should not be compensated.
  • Unlike those who originate ideas, those who repeat the ideas in a tangible form incur physical replication costs and therefore should be compensated.
  • Whenever possible, those physical representations should be copied and shared without actually paying the producers of the materials.

All of which adds up to one question: if ideas are worthless, and the dissemination of them is likely to incur more cost for the reproducers than anyone would advocate paying for, why develop new ideas in the first place?

The answer (at least via this debate) is that ideas are a means to an end, and that end should always be the production of a tangible good that can be owned.  So, to take the extreme long view, concepts like freedom, justice and identity are only of value in the sense that they permit individuals to produce and harvest rice, grain and wood.

To extrapolate further, it’s logical to presume that any non-tangible goods Nick, Steve and Mary have produced are free for the taking — or repurposing — by anyone else.  In that case, I have some suggestions:

  • Steve already said that anything on his blog is free for the taking, including his code.  He’s even cool with you putting your own name on it and passing it off as your own.  High school and college students: this means you can use Steve’s code in any classes where original code is required, since his code is your code.  Enjoy.
  • Nick is the co-founder of GearHeadz, a company that makes tangible items.  However, since Nick doesn’t believe in patents or intellectual property [CLARIFICATION: See comments below], it’s safe to say that anything intangible produced by GearHeadz is also yours for the taking.  That means you now have a corporate identity, a business plan, a marketing strategy and a relationship with investors like AlphaLab — all you have to do is demand that Nick turn them over to you.  Because those are all intangible concepts and relationships, they’re simply ideas; not sharing them with you, by Nick’s own admission, hurts other people.  (He also invites you to use his name, as long as you’re not impersonating him.)
  • Mary’s case would seem to be a grey area, since she works for the Baltimore Sun and, therefore, it could be argued that the Sun “owns” her work — “copyright infringement” and “fair use,” etc.  But the problem is that the Sun is a newspaper, and since newspapers are simply physical representations of ideas (as per Nick’s valuation of books, above), it’s reasonable to conclude that anything the Baltimore Sun (or any other newspaper) prints is free to be redistributed or re-sold with no fee due to the paper, save for the actual cost of purchasing a physical copy.  (And since that information is also available for free online, you can simply copy and paste the articles and then reprint your own Baltimore Sun in your own city.  Have fun!)

I could go on, but the possibilities are limitless.  The bottom line is: ideas are worthless.  What matters is who can sell the most tangible goods the fastest, so they can earn more resources, with which they can buy more tangible goods.  Ideas merely get in the way… except for that part where they’re so important for the future of society that they must be transmitted freely.

Later, we should all debate whether anyone can truly own anything tangible either, since concepts like the state, law, ownership and identity are all intangible ideas and, therefore, unenforceable and inherently worthless.  But it’s already been a long week, and some of us have grain to produce.

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 – PulpLit.com

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 – CelebrityTwitterGossip.com

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!