This weekend, triggered by an Andrew Marantz piece in The New Yorker, “On the Media” did a story about Internet content poachers such as Dose.ca, which cuts and pastes nascent memes from around the Web, optimizes headlines, and redistributes them with little or no credit or linkage to the original authors and copyright holders. The major activity takes place on Facebook, where the fetching items are shared and shared again; the content, however, resides on Dose's page, where ads are sold against the audience.
What's proprietary here is the algorithm that flags potentially viral items before they peak. What's reminiscent of BuzzFeed and Upworthy is the rigorous testing of headlines for clickbaititude. What's reprehensible is the impunity with which it all takes place.
“At the core of it: we are scouring the Web, looking for content that we believe our audience will enjoy and that they will share,” Dose founder Emerson Spartz explained to me. “When we see content that meets our criteria for what we think will be emotionally impactful for our audience and that they will want to share, we publish it.”
I know, right? When I go to Macy's, I often see stuff there I'd like to aggregate and share with family and friends. The thing is, I pay for the stuff before I take it out of the store. Sometimes people like Spartz are called entrepreneurs. Sometimes they are called aggregators.
Sometimes they are called thieves.
The content at issue in Andrew Marantz’s piece was a slide show of photographs lifted from “What I Eat: Around The World In 80 Diets" -- a 2010 volume of photojournalism compiled at the vast expense of time, money and creative ingenuity by authors Faith D’Aluisio and Peter Menzel. The images were of 23 people from around the world posing with the food they typically consume in one day -- from 900 calories for an impoverished Botswana mom to the 5400 calories of fast food for an Illinois truck driver. A provocative idea, magnificently realized. List price: $40.
Yet in Dose's generous act of sharing, the book was not even named, much less linked to. Nor were the photos specifically credited to the authors. Which is to say: owners.
This episode was not an outlier. This is the business model. It’s as if Spartz wanders from museum to museum, art gallery to art gallery, taking photos of paintings and other photographs, publishes those reproductions in an art magazine called Dose and sells ads to run within. Never mind that the owners themselves sell copies of the images for their livelihoods or to support their museum’s operations. Spartz cashes in anyway.
Why? Because It’s just sitting there for the taking, having previously been poached by others, like the merchandise scattered around a looted storefront.
“We of course always try to give credit, when we can identify who the original source was of that photograph, but,” he says, “we live in a 'remix world.' The Internet is a place where, every day, there are billions of photographs being published to the Internet and then there are billions more re-mashes and remixes and photoshops and changes and alterations and different spins and angles taken on those original works of art.
“I'm personally thrilled to live in a world where this level of innovation and the best content is what's showing up on my Facebook feed. Because my friend, who saw that beautiful sunset photo, posted it on his wall and then I saw it on my feed, instead of only seeing photographs that my friends would have had to go and get permission from the original photographer for that same beautiful sunset photo.”
Permission? That’s so hard. You know, and so analog.
Peter Menzel, whose photos wound up earning ad dollars for Emerson Spartz, is not oblivious to the sharing culture and the near impossibility of controlling distribution of your work in the digital age. He also doesn’t deny the notion of Better Reach Through Piracy. He knows his pictures have been seen by many more people because of wanton repurposing. And like recording artists, he’s trying to figure out a way to adjust to the new reality.
“If people really understand and take the work and think about it and know the real purpose and reason behind it…yes, that’s good,” he told me. “But we make a living the old-fashioned way and we can’t eat clicks or tweets.”
Furthermore, it is one thing to be pirated by individuals and organized criminals, and another to be exploited openly by an incorporated business with major investors. Because it isn’t just a new world order of aggregation. It’s old-fashioned piracy.
Aggregation is, of course, a phenomenon of the Internet that existing laws and intellectual property regimes were not prepared to cope with. The last time I spoke to Katharine Weymouth, who just stepped down as publisher of The Washington Post, she was still spitting about Google News and Huffington Post, which she believes profit unjustly from the journalism The Washington Post very expensively produces.
But aggregators of that sort make very significant accommodations to copyright holders. Under evolving but nonetheless hoary notions of fair use, they excerpt only brief portions of third-party content and link directly back to it -- vastly expanding the reach of the original publisher. And most scrupulous aggregators do the same: Boing Boing, Slashdot, Fark, etc.
Dose, by contrast, limits credit to an ambiguous notation at the bottom of its items -– h/t -- which stands for hat-tip, and links back only to the most recent place on the Internet daisy chain that yielded the stuff.
Many in the digirati are unfazed by such conduct. The Internet is governed only by the law of the jungle, they proclaim, so adapt or die. Except that civilization is about replacing the law of the jungle with notions of universal morality and civil order. The alternative is anarchy, en route to barbarism. This is not a question of business models being obsoleted by technology. It's a question of right and wrong. If we shrug about the piracy, if we applaud the pirates, if we do not try to protect the victims, we are guilty, too.