Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Death of Internet Authorship

Crediting seems so easy. You quote a few lines from a book, and drop a footnote to provide the name of the author and page numbers. You print a photo with an article, and you add a caption identifying the subject matter and the photographer/agency. In some places on the internet, among the most legitimate sources of media, content creators largely play by these rules. In others, crediting is purely optional. Non-professionals don't follow the old standards for attribution or never learned them. In the amateur realm, content is constantly appropriated, transformed, and presented to different audiences without so much as an acknowledgement of the original. Some don't even bother with the transformation part.

In some corners of the web, the problem has become endemic. One of my guilty pleasures is watching anime music videos, and every time I go looking for them on Youtube, I'll find uploaded copies with hundreds or thousands of hits, and no acknowledgement of who the original creator was. Many of the accompanying video descriptions don't bother to hide this, often stating they found the video somewhere else, thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with their friends. Of course, this has been going on long before Youtube. Back when the major source of anime music videos was file sharing sites, creator names easily got lost if they weren't included somewhere in the video itself. I've still got a couple sitting on my hard drive that I've never been able to link to a specific creator. Should I feel guilty about watching and enjoying them?

Once you start looking, the lack of crediting is everywhere. Publicity materials for movies and television shows get snapped up and manipulated to make icons and banners on social networking sites and forums. Cosplay photos are shared without identifying the person in costume, the photographer, or even the character being depicted. Viral videos and graphic memes are especially prone to taking on a life of their own. The Hitler meme videos, for instance, rarely credit "Downfall," the film from which the clip of Hitler ranting was taken. And I've never seen anyone credit YouTube user DReaperF4, who posted the first known version of the meme on the site back in 2006. Shouldn't he or she get credit for the idea? Then again, would the meme have become such an international hit if every creator of every successive variant was obligated to go back and figure out where the original came from in order to provide the credit?

There's plenty of push back against this kind of behavior. Fanworks communities, where most creators work under pseudonyms, frequently self-police the more obvious instances of plagiarism. Over on Reddit, a link sharing site, users are called out for reposting previously shared content, or making only minor changes to try and pass something off as original. However, there's a growing tendency to treat anything found on the internet as being part of the public commons, a great morass of no-strings-attached free content ready to be remixed, reworked, aggregated, or simply passed along to more and more content consumers. Or to put it more simply, users have bought into the idea that information wants to be free, which comes at the expense of anyone seeking to profit by that information, even when it comes to something as simple as asserting authorship. Even the most permissive licensing schemes I've found, like the ones championed by Creative Commons, at least require credit where credit is due. However, in the current internet culture, it doesn't seem possible to enforce even that much.

Then again, think about what would happen if stricter regulations were put in place. Corporate interests have already severely warped U.S. copyright laws to keep content out of the public domain for far longer than the originators of copyright law ever intended. And they've been behind the draconian recent internet regulation bills that would make it impossible for the internet to function in its current form, where simply linking to someone's copyrighted content, even inadvertently, would be actionable. On the other hand, there's the other extreme. In China it's easier to find knockoffs than the genuine article when it comes to many products. The government recognizes intellectual property rights, but enforcement has always been lax. Ideas are assumed to belong to the public commons at the outset, for anyone to profit by. The public benefits, but it becomes difficult for legitimate creators to operate. Where's the happy medium between the two models here? Is one even possible?

You'll notice that I haven't used word piracy, because the issue here goes a lot deeper than simply copying or using someone else's work without permission. It's the whole approach to intellectual property that seems to be shifting, toward something more collectively owned and controlled, where the original author isn't just stripped of authority upon the publication of a work, but identity as well. In remix culture, he or she becomes the first of a series of authors, each making contributions or helping to disseminate a piece of media. Information becomes free, beyond any single person's influence, self-perpetuating.

Is this a good thing? A bad thing? I don't know, but it's happening.

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