Attribution: the growing divide between traditional and digital media
While internet quarrels are nothing new, nor are arguments over giving attribution, nor is the idea that there is no such thing as an original idea, there is a tiff going on right now that highlights the chasm between the digital world and traditional media.
According to the Consumerist, in 2011, blogger Jenn Yates posted a tutorial on how to turn wire hangers into flip flop shoe storage, and in a recent printing of Redbook, a hand drawn image appeared in the magazine of her idea, but did not feature any attribution or credit, despite the similarity being so close to the original image, that the same color flip flop and placement of the buckle is featured in the Redbook sketch (see comparisons in the image above).
The recipe for bloggers is to come to the other blogger’s defense, denouncing the traditional medium and calling for apologies or corrections. Sometimes the old school publications cave, other times they choose to take the hit, whether small or large. Parallel to that is the old school move of using lawyers to send cease and desist letters to bloggers with legal threats. Both are harsh, and both have proven to be equally effective and ineffective.
How did we get here, why does it matter?
So why does this particular quarrel matter? Why now? Because the web is changing, and copyright laws and ethics are being convoluted as more gray area is established with the increasing popularity of the visual web, as more web users flock to social networks and blogs that feature images rather than walls of words, not only as a novelty but as a time saver.
Yates’ idea has been shared across social networks, and the image has been used on Pinterest and other services, many times without attribution. It has entered the public consciousness, which points to the curse of the visual web – image piracy without consequence because the “problem” is so widespread that it truly is impossible to monitor 100% of all sites at all times, even with technologies allowing for image tracking and use.
Despite that curse, the visual web has given rise to many blessings, as information is disseminated, people are inspired and informed, and improved, both personally and professionally, and beyond that, sites like Pinterest are proven to drive substantial traffic to blogs.
But the twist with the visual web and how it ties into Yates’ flip flop storage idea, is that at what point does an idea become public domain? After it’s been featured 200 times on Pinterest? Or maybe 300 times? Or maybe after 12 months? There is no formula for it, that would be ridiculous, but anyone who has spent time on any visual site or even Facebook for that matter, has seen Yates’ brilliant idea without being aware that she was the originator.
And do people care when they see a neat idea online that it wasn’t attributed to the true, original source? No, they just want to bend up wires and make flip flop hangers. It’s not like the idea was patented, trademarked, or even sold, so the dilemma lies in attribution.
What can traditional media do to suck less?
The crux of why digital and traditional media are clashing on this particular issue is that the digital content creator may or may not make money from their original ideas, but traditional content creators make money whether their ideas are pirated or not, and traditional media have harsh lawyers and deep pockets, whereas bloggers usually only have each other.
So what can traditional media do? Obviously, traditional media must look at their attribution policies. Is it realistic to expect that a magazine like Redbook would look so deeply beyond the web of hundreds of links to the flip flop storage idea, many of which are not attributed themselves, to discover the original source? No, but they should, given their resources to do so. Should bloggers be expected to research deeply enough to know the original source? Sure, but their resources are limited, so it is reasonable to expect attribution to the last known source.
Turn on cable news on any given night, or local news, and I guarantee, you’ll see a video that is attributed to YouTube, as if YouTube shot a video of a tornado themselves, not an actual person. You’ll see images lifted from Twitter, simply attributed to Twitter, as if a Twitter robot went to the Rolling Stones concert and shot pictures and posted them online.
Traditional media refuses to acknowledge, or hell, even understand that the internet and social networks are made up of people, not faceless robots, and just as their lawyers expect and enforce attribution of their content, they must play nicely too. No more “video courtesy of YouTube,” rather print and television need to step up and say “video courtesy of YouTube.com/username,” because if you ever wrote a blog and said, “image courtesy of a tv news channel,” they could, and probably would sue.
While the debate continues as to what attribution of ideas should look like as copyright notions erode under the weight of the visual web, the first step is for traditional media to be fair, as they have always expected bloggers to do the same.