The Creator's Dilemma On Others Making Money Off Your Content

from the offer-it-up-yourself dept

A couple of folk sent in this story of Ryan Sohmer, author of the popular web comic Least I Could Do, where he complains about others “stealing” his content in iPhone apps. But, this isn’t the usual case of a content creator lashing out about “stealing.” Sohmer has built up a nice model in giving away his comics for free, and we even wrote about his anger earlier this year at the Writers Guild of Canada for trying to force ISPs to pay a “tax” to writers. On the whole, his views are quite progressive on business models and free content. But what he’s upset about here is that some others are taking his comics and putting them in fee-based iPhone apps, and thus “profiting” off his content, without his permission:

As a general rule, I’m fairly lenient with individuals using our content for personal use. You want to throw up a comic on your blog, use our avatars or wallpapers, that’s fine. That’s actually what they’re there for and truth be told, we appreciate you spreading the word.

Where I draw the line, however, is an individual lifting our entire comic archives, putting them in an iPhone app, charging 99 cents for it and putting their own advertising banners on each comic. Profiting off of our hard work without so much as a link back to this site. No justifying that, that’s ripping us off, plain and simple.

The sad reality of it, is that things appear to be getting worse. Almost every day, I receive a couple of e-mails telling me about a new app or aggregator that’s featuring Least I Could Do or Looking For Group.

Alex Winston, who was the first to send this in, asked what we thought Sohmer should do in such a situation, and wondered how those who are open to sharing their works should deal with cases where others profit from those works. We’ve actually discussed something similar recently, but to more directly address the question, I tend to think that the answer is to simply supply a similar offering yourself — and make it clear which ones are the official versions. Even if you’re giving away your content for free, if people want to pay for it, why not offer them a way to do so? And, if you make it quite clear which is the official version and which is not, most people will go for the official version, because they want to support the artist.

And, if you’re still offering your works for free, and yet others are making money off of some sort of “aggregation,” well, at some point you have to admit that perhaps it’s the aggregation they’re paying for, rather than the content itself, since they could have received the content for free. I recognize that it can seem upsetting at first if it looks like someone is “making money off of my content,” but rather than worry too much about it (since it’s not going to go away), the answer is to focus on doing whatever it is you can do to make sure that people know of ways to support you directly, and then it’s up to them. If someone else is somehow offering something better, then perhaps look into ways to improve what you offer as well. But, in the end, worrying about what other people do will only get you so far. Focus on what you can do.

An alternative option is that if someone is really doing something that is better with your content, you could approach them, and ask them for a reasonable cut of the revenue, noting that in exchange, you’d promote their app to your fans, as well. That would likely increase the number of buyers, and everyone comes away happy.

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Comments on “The Creator's Dilemma On Others Making Money Off Your Content”

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Anonymous Coward says:

An alternative option is that if someone is really doing something that is better with your content, you could approach them, and ask them for a reasonable cut of the revenue,

Gotta love the logic: Someone steals your stuff, and you call them and ask them nicely if they would like to partner with you? What a way to encourage theft. I am going to start selling bootleg copies of Windows. When do you think Microsoft is going to call to partner with me?

jjmsan (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

So you are saying the trademark holder would take me to court for theft yes? If they did they would lose. Besides you are deliberating misunderstanding in a trolling manner. Of course they could come after me for tradmark violation because they did not give the trademark away. See how easy it is to answer questions if you are not just trying to be obtuse.

Yakko Warner says:

Re: Re:

Can’t stop the signal, I guess.

If someone is doing something you don’t like with something you own the legal copyright to, your only recourse is to out-do them. Because stopping them isn’t an option.

Still doesn’t answer my question from a few days ago, about what you do when someone republishes something of yours that you simply don’t want published. *shrug*

Joe Dirt says:

Re: Re:

Your comment makes no sense.
Sohmer offers his content for free, so no one is stealing anything. They are merely profiting from his creation by offering access to his free content in the form of an iPhone app. Sohmer’s only real bitch is no acknowledgement or link back to his site.
MS, on the other hand, charges for their product. Profiting from a bootleg OS without proper licensing is most definately stealing.

Michael (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

No to nit-pick, but it is still not “stealing”. MS is not missing anything. Stealing means you have something that the person that owns it does not. This does not apply in the case of selling bootleg copies of software. You may have violated a licensing agreement, infringed on a copyright and/or a trademark, but you have not stolen anything unless you took the software box off the shelf in a store.

However, I am in agreement that using freely given away content to make money is something that the creator of the content should not be complaining about. In fact, they should be praising you for finding them a business model. They can then choose to lock up their content, build a similar offer and steal your customers, or partner with you in some way so they get a cut of the profits.

Jan Hopmans (profile) says:

Why even care?

Why should you even care? You give away something free, others can still get it free, but somehow they want to pay.

You haven’t lost anything. They are more happy; they have gained something. The sellers are more happy; they have some money. You can be happy: You can make. Obviously some people weren’t satisfied.

TheStupidOne says:

The Obvious Solution

Make your own app with 2 versions that are exactly the same. Call one the free version and the other the donate version. Then people who want to pay can pay and those who just want your comic can get your comic. Then have your fans comment on the unofficial versions that they are unofficial and there is an official one available for free.

moore850 (profile) says:

stealing for profit

Let me explain this one more time. Copyright law and Creative Commons licenses are supposed to specifically protect against this case — where someone else is profiting directly from your work without giving you the money. This is theft, plain and simple. How in the world would it be ok for someone to charge money for something that you provide for free, and for them to not pay you when it’s your product? They’re stealing your rights. Just because you elect to give your product away, that doesn’t automatically grant the right for any random person to distribute your product. How would it? Unless you say, “here, take this and give it to anyone you want or charge them for it”, then you have not waived that right.

Lobo Santo's Ugly Cat says:

Re: stealing for profit

That is the point: The only dilemma the the creator should face is which lawyer they are going to use to take the scumbag thief down.

Copyright holders should never be in the position of having to beg the thieves to let them make some money with them. It’s a disgusting concept that only goes to show how totally out of touch with reality Techdirt really is at times. The comments on this thread are very amusing indeed.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: stealing for profit

Nope, I believe it’s you missing the point…

As ever, nobody’s saying that the “stealing” is correct or should happen. The point that since it IS happening, there are other options than freaking out and trying to increase the law’s involvement. Introducing new draconian laws and new taxes is not going to help content creators in the real world.

In this case, the 3rd party “stealing” from him have identified and exploited a market that he has not identified and exploited himself – in this case, iPhone users. Rather than whining about the app’s existence, he should be thinking to himself about how he can exploit this market. The easy way is the undercut the “pirates'” price (in this case free), and use the app to drive more traffic directly to him. This should be easy, as few would choose the paid-for 3rd party app over a free official app if the latter is of the same or higher quality (and since he could, say, offer exclusives through his own app, that should come naturally).

Do you want to address this point that’s actually being made, or join the ranks of the idiot ACs in attacking a strawman that has nothing to do with the issue at hand?

hegemon13 says:

Re: Re: Re:2 stealing for profit

No, the market is based on what people want and what they are willing to buy. It is unlikely that the apps’ users even know that they are unapproved by the creator. The apps are filling a market demand, meaning that Sohmer could likely profit even more by filling the same demand with an “official” app. Maybe even have special episodes that only app users could see, and which are hosted on a secure server that only the official app can see.

The point is, whether the current solution is legal or not, the demand exists. He does not have to exploit it, but he would be silly not to.

Chill says:

Re: Re: Re:2 stealing for profit

So to clear this up, for you it (business) is about morals rather than making a profit. Even if there is advantage to be had, you would rather vindicate your moral position than make a profit over something.

I believe I have hi-lighted a fundamental difference in thinking over commenters here.

One group wants to make a profit: “who cares what other people are doing, how can I use their taking advantage of me to my advantage?”
*goes and makes money*

The other: “Hey! someone else is taking my idea and applying it in a way I didn’t think about; I don’t care if I could use this to my advantage, I’m going to show that someone that they are a bad, bad person!”
*shakes finger atop the moral high ground*

moore850 (profile) says:

Re: stealing for profit

Furthermore, all this nonsense about copyright being restrictive is really about taking the rights of the creators away from them. If anything created was automatically in the public domain for anyone to use for anything they want, then all content creators would no longer have any exclusive to their own works. Know this: the only way for that to work would be in a world without money. If we had the “star trek” style no money world, where there were no longer scarce resources with respect to food, shelter, items, etc. then it would be no big deal to call everything created by anyone public domain. However, as long as someone can generate “revenue” as defined by our monetary-based economy from your products, you are legally entitled to a share of that revenue, unless you waive that right. You are able to waive that right, but it is your choice, not someone else’s. If someone else wants to take something from me without my permission, that is stealing, end of story.

moore850 (profile) says:

Re: Re: stealing for profit

One more. The very fact that anyone is willing to pay for something proves by virtue of how a money-based economy works that the item is in fact a scarce (valuable) resource, and therefore that its theft is a crime of monetary significance. I am not condoning ridiculous fines on internet file sharing, but I think if you share something for free OR generate money on something that is supposed to be free, you should be liable for that amount of money in damages.

ChurchHatesTucker (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: stealing for profit

“The very fact that anyone is willing to pay for something proves by virtue of how a money-based economy works that the item is in fact a scarce (valuable) resource, and therefore that its theft is a crime of monetary significance.”

People pay for non-scarce goods all the time. Try again.

Chill says:

Re: Re: Re:3 stealing for profit

Paying for X X is scarce.

Anything digital media that you pay for can be copied to infinity without the bits losing any of their bit-iness, if you will.
A file is digital information, programs express that information meaningfully.
It isn’t physical, it is a digital representation of information.

Information is an intangible, non-scarce good.


People pay for digital files all the time.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: stealing for profit

Wow, you are clueless, aren’t you?

People pay for digital goods all the time. The fact that I paid for an iPhone app today does *not* suddenly mean they’re a scare good – it’s data. Data can be replicated to infinity without losing any definition, therefore it’s infinite.

The only scarcities involved with digital goods are artificial (e.g. the DRM that prevents me from copying my app to a friend’s iPhone). This is not the same as a scarce good – the scarcities can be removed by those willing, nobody can infinitely reproduce my TV no matter how they hack it.

As ever, what’s being discussed here is how to get people to remain willing to pay for an infinite good. The “criminals” in this case appear to have found a way to do that while the original creator has not. The point of the article is to address that, yes, he can do that too if he stops whining and puts his mind to it.

rjk (profile) says:

Re: Re: stealing for profit

Consider looking at it a different way.

These pirates are filling a market need you aren’t. Why aren’t you filling that need?

Why aren’t you viewing pirates as your R&D and marketing departments.

Why aren’t you ‘stealing’ their good ideas and using those ideas to make you money?

People spend so much time, money and energy worrying about and fighting pirates. Use them to your advantage.

moore850 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: stealing for profit

That’s like saying that Louis Vuitton should use Canal street vendors as a marketing study. Sure, some of this information is useful, but that doesn’t make it legal and in the case of a small vendor, it really is harmful in a lot of cases. In either case, isn’t it the vendor’s choice? All of these replies are saying that the vendor should just “deal” with the existence of these things. I am saying that especially in the case of a goliath stealing from a David, you are absolutely obligated to go after them and get the monetary reimbursement owed to you as the originator of the works.

P.S. I’m not “Stealing” ideas because that’s … stealing.

rjk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 stealing for profit

So you don’t steal ideas? Interesting.

All culture builds on the past. People are constantly ‘stealing’ ideas. Louis Vuitton didn’t invent luggage, he ‘stole’ the idea and made his own version. No one creates anything without borrowing an idea or two.

So if you see a creator selling his own works in some way you hadn’t thought of before, you aren’t going to copy his idea for your own works?

Of course, your Louis Vuitton argument is kinda silly. People who purchase a $50 knock-off of a LV handbag wouldn’t be buying the $1200 original if the knock-off wasn’t available.

Sure it’s the vendor’s choice? But what’s the best approach for the comic in this story? Get into a legal battle? or provide his own app?

BearGriz72 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 stealing for profit

“That’s like saying that Louis Vuitton should use Canal street vendors as a marketing study”

That is not exactly on point as we are talking about an infinite digital good rather than a physical object, but as Mike has pointed out repeatedly on this site that is what some people are doing (i.e. Using the ?Pirate? version as a marketing tool) and making lots of money doing it.

“All of these replies are saying that the vendor should just ‘deal’ with the existence of these things.”

NO what they are saying is that the original creator should LEARN from the existence of these things and fill the need themselves. That most people, given the choice, and all other things being equal would CHOOSE to support the original creator rather than the knockoff as it were. As far as your Louis Vuitton analogy I suggest reading This Article or Maybe This One to better educate yourself

“Imitation is the sincerest flattery”

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: stealing for profit

Know this: the only way for that to work would be in a world without money.

How do you come up with this stuff? 1) people create things for other reasons than money and 2) people make money from creating stuff without relying on copyright. You’re totally wrong.

However, as long as someone can generate “revenue” as defined by our monetary-based economy from your products, you are legally entitled to a share of that revenue, unless you waive that right.

No, you’re not. If someone has found a way to use your products in a legal fashion (for example through fair use or through something that doesn’t infringe copyright at all) and make money doing it, you have no claim on that revenue.

mobiGeek (profile) says:

Re: Re: stealing for profit

However, as long as someone can generate “revenue” as defined by our monetary-based economy from your products, you are legally entitled to a share of that revenue, unless you waive that right.

Someone sells me a table for $10. They get $10. I take that table and sell it for $25 (possibly by modifying it, possibly not). Do they have a right to some of the $15 in profit that I made? [No, they don’t. I already gave them what they were willing to take for the original item].

Okay, now reduce all the values in the above paragraph by $10 and change “table” (a physical item that has a marginal cost to produce) with “data” (a non-physical item with $0 marginal cost). Does the original producer of the data have a right to some of my $5 profit? [No, they don’t. I already gave them what they were willing to take for the original item].

PaulT (profile) says:

Since Apple have to approve apps sold in their store, surely this would be relatively easy to fix? Simply contact Apple, inform them that it’s a violation of copyright and get them to remove it from the store. Since it’s the only avenue for paid apps for the majority of iPhones, Apple’s removal would have a widespread effect.

Of course, that assumes that this is a direct copyright violation under Canadian law and that Apple have written a copyright violation clause into their contracts, but the odds are, I think.

…and, yeah, a free app to compete with the illegitimate paid-for app would probably be a great idea rather than simply complaining.

. says:

Don't bitch about it.

Compete dog.

Besides copiers don’t get referred jobs because they don’t do the work.

If someone else make money off of something that is good.

It helps spread the work, create a brand and all that.

If it was me I would approach them and offer exclusive content that they wouldn’t find elsewhere and ask for money LoL

Who needs copyright?

Only the weak!

Anonymous Coward says:

The more we reward people for doing things besides making content, the more we encourage a system which does not reward making content.

I look forward to a future where all of the aggregators ceaselessly churn through the same three pieces of content – one made by Britney Spears and two made by people you’ll never hear from again. Fortunately, I’ll have like a ZILLION aggregators to choose from! Hooray!

AC says:

just for the sake of argument

I don’t like what the app people and aggregators are doing to this guy. Again, that is a d-bag thing to do, and I am not in favor.

That said, if I were the iPhone app people, I would argue that what people are paying for is simple efficient way to access the comics rather than selling the comics.

If I were the comic book guy, I would create my own app or equivalent, as suggested in another comment, and market it as coming from the creator of the comics. Perhaps he could make a special page on his site that displays the comics in an iPhone specific way.

coder says:

I was an early coder on the web going for the cool-factor. I worked for a big newspaper and built some big and popular sites. I decade later and I can still find my early work turning up within other folks – even in code others are selling as their own.

What do you hope to recover from someone who sells your stuff so cheap? I agree that at times it can tick you off but it isn’t worth the time and energy to go after them. I have exposed a couple thiefs and they were seen as such by their clients; and that was satisfying. You just have to adjust to the mindset of taking pride in the spread of your work and knowing you were an innovator.

Through being published the culprits reselling his comics are exposed. It is now up to the buyers to decide if they care…or, the app stores to decide if they want to continue selling these apps.

Anonymous Coward says:

Normally I’m with you Mike, but on this one I’m going to have to disagree.

This artist is offering his comics for free, but is getting revenue in ad’s that are placed on his site, and from t-shirt sales of his content. He can provide the content for free b/c he’s using it as leverage for other revenue. But it is not ‘free’ and it is still his.

For someone to pick it up and call it their own, and then make a profit off of it is stealing. That is traffic that is being taken from his site, and thus revenue loss to him.

To say, ‘then provide your own alternative’ is pretty much condoning it, and accepting the bad manners of the other party. He shouldn’t have to reach out to the person who is stealing his content and try and turn it into a business venture. If anything, the person should have contacted him first or at least provided a link to the original in the app.

I have to ask, really, if someone were to write a crawler for this site that takes all your articles and then makes an iphone app that allows ppl to view them with a different interface and with no mention of you at all, would you not be the least bit upset?

Jake (user link) says:


Not to excuse either the violation of the letter of copyright law or good manners, but I have to admit that Mike does have a point; Sohmer’s better off making the best of a bad situation and cutting a deal rather than screwing around with takedown notices and lawyers and all that BS over something that’s actually not a bad idea, at least if he can’t tweak the site code for Least I Could Do so it displays tolerably on a smartphone screen.

All the same, the one thing I would ever consider going the legal route over is someone else passing my work off as their own and making money off it.

Alan Gerow (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“I have to ask, really, if someone were to write a crawler for this site that takes all your articles and then makes an iphone app that allows ppl to view them with a different interface and with no mention of you at all, would you not be the least bit upset?”

The point is not whether or not Mike would be upset (he probably would be). The point is that Mike wouldn’t sue, but would look to free market solutions to the problem instead of resorting to legal threats and courtroom solutions.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I have to ask, really, if someone were to write a crawler for this site that takes all your articles and then makes an iphone app that allows ppl to view them with a different interface and with no mention of you at all, would you not be the least bit upset?

Nope. Not upset. Totally cool by me. Would be nicer if they credited us, obviously, but the content is public domain.

Most people would probably figure out before too long where the content actually comes from — and then whoever copied it without credit would look bad, destroying their credibility. but that’s their choice.

R. Miles (profile) says:

My two cents, copyright but free for anyone to use.

This is theft, plain and simple.
No, it’s not. Theft involves removing said product from any attempts at others from accessing the same.

This is ***CLEARLY*** not the same in this regard. The artist is more upset they didn’t get to the app first so are now pointing fingers at use of his works in an app which seems more about ads than it does content.

Does this app *ONLY* show his works or others as well?

There’s a great comic site I visit so often which brings together the works of many in one place. I don’t “pay” for these works simply because most content is uploaded by the creators themselves.

If one should build an app which pulls down this same thing, does this mean the website owner should object? The artists?

Bullshit. This guy clearly thanks people for distributing his works he offers for free then turns around and bitches when someone must incur a cost to do the same damn thing.

Or do people really think this guy’s profiting off a $0.99 cent app? Incredible. I seriously doubt the $0.99 covers the bandwidth fee of the app in question, regardless if it’s ad supported or not.

Anyone, and I do mean anyone, who runs a website knows advertising isn’t going to cover operational costs. They only offset them, marginally at best.

How in the world would it be ok for someone to charge money for something that you provide for free, and for them to not pay you when it’s your product?
By understanding WHAT IS BEING SOLD. The app or the comic?

I’m guessing, in this regard, it’s the app.

People, come back with this argument when the app developer is selling lithographs of these strips under his name.

Until then, aggregating content isn’t illegal as it “steals” nothing but gives great, great benefits to making more works available to an even wider audience.

The Infamous Joe (profile) says:

Lobo Santo's Ugly Cat and moore850

Sorry fellas (or gals?) but this poor, dumb bastard doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

He has an RSS feed.

I have paid money for my RSS feed reader on my Droid, and if I were to subscribe to his RSS feed, (which I certainly won’t now) wouldn’t that be the same *exact* thing? Didn’t *he* set up said RSS feed?

Furthermore, these apps (and I’m guessing here, because I can’t search the app store to find them) probably pull a bunch of “free” web comics and aggregate them into one app. That would mean that people aren’t paying for his comic, but instead on the convenience of one-stop-shopping for multiple comics.

Lastly: Stealing != Copying. I write off even a well thought off argument when I read someone call it “stealing”. If I threw a plastic bottle on the side of the road I wouldn’t be “raping the earth” I’d be littering, no matter how badly Greenpeace hates it.

Enjoy your weekend!

PrometheeFeu (profile) says:

OK, I think people here should relax a bit. The response by that artist is I think perfectly fair. He did launch an iPhone app to compete with others and he does not look like he is going to sue. Instead, he is basically just telling his fans: People who use my work without as much as the courtesy of asking are jerks and if you want to support this comic, you’ll send us money instead of sending it to them.
I think what this artist is doing is exactly what is talked about here: He is monetizing his connection with his fans by encouraging them to prefer stuff he sells.

The Infamous Joe (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Calling someone a thief when they have not stolen anything is libel. That *is* illegal.

It’s one thing to tell your fans on your blog, “Buy/Use my app instead of paying for this other guys so you can directly support me.” and a totally different thing to say “These app developers are thieves, and if you buy their app you are just supporting thieves.”

He comes off as childish, to me.

jjmsan (profile) says:


Ok, lets try an easy example. I give you 100 books for “free” You sell those books to the general public for a million dollars each. You do not give me any of the money. Are you guilty of stealing, theft or anything else? There are court cases saying that if you dispose of CD’s and someone else removes them from the garbage the finder can sell those disks. How is this different?

harknell (profile) says:

Trademark is the Issue really

As someone has pointed out, A plain old RSS reader program can pull in any website’s content. The issue really is whether the company selling this app is presenting itself as a representative of the comic in question. Basically, is it fraudulently appearing to be trading as the comic entity or a legitimate extension of that entity? Using the comic’s name in your app or marketing in a way that tricks buyers into believing they are buying a product from that comic is what is the most problematic and legal oriented issue.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Trademark is the Issue really

The difference: Are you selling a reader, or are you selling the content?

An RSS reader is just that, something that can read RSS. Selling an app with “comics like X and Y and Z” suggests you are selling content. That is bad.

An RSS reader would also read things like ads, links, and other material in the feed. A comic distributor just rips the comics completely out of context and presents them like that.

The difference is huge.

Rasmus says:

Re: Re: Trademark is the Issue really

I was just going to write a comment about this being a case of fraud against the consumers. And then I noticed that you guys had already explained it better.

If you take copyright laws out of the equation this activity should still be regarded illegal.

Creating a free iphone app with the same content, without ads, and providing links back to the original creation should on the other hand be legal.

Anyonymous Coward says:


What I would do, personally? If I had a comic archive like he does, I would add a php watermarking form and a .htaccess rule. Anyone that tries to snag images directly from the site or hotlinks it elsewhere, it adds a very visible, half transparent watermark to the lower right hand corner. You can still hotlink and/or aggregate, but there’s still credit given.

CrushU says:

Reminds me of another example

Another webcomic that gives away the comic for free and subsists on book/shirt sales and ads on the side is ErfWorld. They added a feature that the creators would post a bit of backstory or behind-the-scenes look at creating the comment, that you needed a $5+ subscription to see (set by user)

There is also a free wiki on the world, and the creators chime in occasionally to correct some implication errors and to provide new material there as well. It’s a very cool system, IMO.

The Buzz Saw (profile) says:


Clearly the content industries are not on the same page in regards to “piracy”. On one side, you have content creators who sell their content and become angry when pirates distribute that content for free because “if everyone can get it for free, they will never pay for the real thing”. On the other side, you have content creators who give their content away and become angry when pirates find a way to monetize it…?

Wait a second here… So, which is it? The latter group fundamentally disproves the fears of the former group.

Arborlaw (profile) says:

Setting aside all the posts in favor of not having any copyrights, why shouldn’t an author be able to give something away for free today, in certain situations, but reserve the right to change his or her mind and charge for it? Just because I give you a personal copy of something I own doesn’t mean I am giving you the right to make a million copies of it, and charge money for them. What’s surprising is that Apple didn’t do their homework on this, they approved an app that infringes copyright.

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