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.

Filed Under: bristlebots, copying, copyright, iliad, mad scientists, metafilter, reputation, user friendly
Companies: klutz/scholastic

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  1. icon
    Mike (profile), 23 Feb 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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