Social Pressure Can Solve The 'Copying' Problem Even Without Copyright

from the reputation-is-a-scarce-good dept

Whenever we talk about a world without copyright, people chime in about how awful it would be because someone can just "take" someone else's content and pretend it's their own. However, that's not nearly as easy as people make it out to be. As we've pointed out before, in many such cases, it won't take people long to figure out where the content really originated from, and the end result is that the "copyist" (especially if it's blatant, and they do little to improve the content) has their reputation slammed. And, since your reputation is a scarce good (often one of the most important in any business model), there is strong social pressure to stop any such copying.

Two recent examples demonstrate this in a very clear manner.

First, MAKE Magazine noted that publishers Klutz/Scholastic were publishing a book on BristleBots, small robots made out of toothbrush heads, and failed to credit the folks who had originally created BristleBots, a group called Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories, as an example of a simple, do-it-yourself, robot making system. It was a pretty blatant copy, from both the name to the design. And, while Klutz/Scholastic at first tried to claim that it was independently created, the similarities between the two made that difficult to believe. This resulted in a public outcry from many different sites, and Klutz/Scholastic finally agreed to back down and will credit the Evil Mad Scientists in all future releases. Notice that this didn't involve any copyright claims or lawsuits -- but pure public pressure, and the potential (serious) damage to Klutz/Scholatic's brand and reputation. Already, the reputation is damaged, and the company will likely be much more careful in the future.

Meanwhile, angry jonny points us to another example. The community over at the excellent website Metafilter discovered that the author of the webcomic User Friendly has been blatantly copying punchlines to his comics from the Metafilter community. It started with a single comparison in today's comic (here's the Metafilter comment and here's today's today's comic using a nearly identical punchline). Then, the Metafilter community started digging into a variety of User Friendly comics from the past few months and found repeated examples of the punchline coming from Metafilter comments -- often days after the comment (all of these examples found in the comments to the original Metafilter post):



The author of User Friendly is now scrambling to make things right after his initial attempt to pass the blame was trashed by most readers. Once again, even without a copyright claim (and I've made clear that I think the idea of copyrighting jokes is silly), it looks like social pressure and the hit to one's (scarce) reputation is often quite enough to punish blatant copyists. So, the idea that you somehow need "copyright" to prevent such copying is increasingly absurd. And, I should point out, that in both of these cases, the "copyists" were a lot more well known than those copied -- which puts to rest a second point copyright defenders often try to make: that if the copyist is big enough, no one will notice. That doesn't seem to be happening in practice.


Reader Comments (rss)

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  1.  
    identicon
    I've done tarnished my rep..., Feb 23rd, 2009 @ 11:50am

    I feel that whenever we talk about a world without copyright, people chime in about how awful it would be because someone can just "take" someone else's content and pretend it's their own. However, that's not nearly as easy as people make it out to be. As we've pointed out before, in many such cases, it won't take people long to figure out where the content really originated from, and the end result is that the "copyist" (especially if it's blatant, and they do little to improve the content) has their reputation slammed. And, since your reputation is a scarce good (often one of the most important in any business model), there is strong social pressure to stop any such copying.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
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    lavi d (profile), Feb 23rd, 2009 @ 11:55am

    Also

    The further sadness is, that as a long time reader of Metafilter, I believe that if User Friendly had originally marketed the cartoons as "Illustrations of Metafilter Comments", or "Powered by Metafilter Madness" or some such, it would have been mostly greeted with delight by other "MeFites"

     

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  3.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 23rd, 2009 @ 12:04pm

    http://www.FMyLife.com has more comedic content.

     

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  4.  
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    Comboman, Feb 23rd, 2009 @ 12:40pm

    Plagiarism

    Taking someone else's content and pretending it's your own is called plagiarism. It does not have to involve copyright.

     

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  5.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 23rd, 2009 @ 12:42pm

    Speaking of credibility, does Metallica trying to shut down Napster come to anyone's mind?

     

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  6.  
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    Davis Freeberg, Feb 23rd, 2009 @ 2:04pm

    Copying or Adding Value?

    User Friendly probably should have been more transparent over the inspiration for his comics, but I wholeheartidly support his copying of the content. It's a great example of how value can be added, even when its already been published. So what if he isn't creative enough to come up with his own material day after day. The mere fact that he takes the time to gather, illustrate and present that content to a new audience is transformative enough. If he was just doing a quick cut and paste I might view the behavior more dimly, but since he's presenting the comments in an entirely different way, I don't have problems with him lifting the jokes. I realize that not everyone will agree with me, but if I was the original creator, I'd be more flattered than upset. Hopefully, he learns to be more transparent from the flame up, but I'd be sad if he stopped illustrating these comments from the peanut gallery.

     

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  7.  
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    Mike (profile), Feb 23rd, 2009 @ 2:07pm

    Re: Copying or Adding Value?

    The mere fact that he takes the time to gather, illustrate and present that content to a new audience is transformative enough. If he was just doing a quick cut and paste I might view the behavior more dimly, but since he's presenting the comments in an entirely different way, I don't have problems with him lifting the jokes.

    Yup, I agree wholeheartedly. I don't think there's anything wrong with reusing the jokes. But, the point is that your reputation may suffer if you don't credit your sources.

     

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  8.  
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    ehrichweiss, Feb 23rd, 2009 @ 2:27pm

    Mike you missed it...

    Mike, you fell for this just like everyone else did.

    EMSL were NOT the originators of the "bristlebot" ***as a device***. They created the name but that's as far as it goes. Period.

    There was prior art for the "bristlebot" shown as early as the 1980's, even some from Russia, but everyone jumped on Klutz because they are the "big bad meanie" in the situation because they're a corporation.

    Thing is, EMSL let others absolutely freely use the name to the extent that they let someone register bristlebots.co.uk and sell bristlebot kits.

    This whole episode was a tempest in a teapot. A tiny, tiny tempest in a tiny, tiny teapot.

     

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  9.  
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    devil's advocate, Feb 23rd, 2009 @ 2:38pm

    Re:

    Well put! You've added some great insight to this topic.

     

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  10.  
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    ChurchHatesTucker (profile), Feb 23rd, 2009 @ 4:34pm

    Heh.

    The comment for today will be replaced shortly. Please stand by.

     

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  11.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 23rd, 2009 @ 5:01pm

    No difference. UF was a crap comic even before it was a crap comic based on other people's punchlines.

    Anyway, there's something I find extremely nasty about accepting the mobs in the internet as some sort of parallel justice system. It may be true democracy (everybody has a vote, not just "representatives") but I still think that the mob will always be partial to its particular collective... and I really don't think that's good in the long run. I read somewhere recently (maybe here, I really can't remember) that the internet resembles a very primitive society. I think there was evolution over that, and I find it troubling that we're greeting the same tried old methods as good enough. Not that I want an internet police, I think that the justice system is has become so partial and bastardized that no one can really trust it, but still... Maybe I'm wrong and the level of collaboration that the internet allows will make it more "fair" and not as harmful as a traditional mob... but I still find it troubling.

     

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  12.  
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    Gene Cavanaugh, Feb 24th, 2009 @ 9:39am

    Copying

    There's a lot of truth in the article, but again, it is "pegged" - biased toward only one side of the argument.
    We take a few examples and inductively deduce there is absolutely no problem - and there is.
    True, public opinion is important, but if this were really an open forum, for every example of one side's argument, I could give an example on the other side.
    Still, it is refreshing to hear about people simply doing the right thing without having to resort to the law.

     

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  13.  
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    pt, Feb 25th, 2009 @ 7:28am

    Re: Mike you missed it...

    @ehrichweiss - hi! mike didn't fall for anything, he accurately observed how social pressures can make companies do the ethical thing.

    this was *not* a toxic argument about patents, trademarks or copyrights - it was about what scholastic and klutz *should do* what was the moral thing to do?

    here's what i told publishers weekly:

    "My concern wasn't one of legal matters, copyright, patents and trademarks - it was about what type of company Scholastic and Klutz wants to be, what world they want kids to grow up in - they can credit makers and work with them or they can choose to hijack unique inventions without crediting makers - I'm pleased to see Scholastic and Klutz is choosing to be the company everyone feels good about supporting. This is great news for makers and readers - it means there are huge companies interested in what makers create. I'm sure Windell and Lenore will show how traditional business can work with the maker community to the benefit of both."

    you sure are busy with this one ehrichweiss, i've seen your comments on every site about this!

     

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  14.  
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    melissa, Apr 7th, 2009 @ 1:05pm

    HOW DO I GET SOMETHING COPYRIGHTED??

    SO I HAVE AN IDEA THAT I WANT TO BRING FORTH TO THE BIC COMPANY AND MY QUESTION IS.... HOW DO I GET MY IDEA COPYRIGHTED BEFORE BRING IT TO THEM? I DONT WANT TO BRING MY IDEA TO THEM AND HAVE IT TAKEN AWAY FROM ME AND HAVE THEM USE IT AS THEIR OWN.

     

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  15.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 6th, 2010 @ 11:06am

    Just take the Microsoft Office course.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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