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Spectacular Cluelessness from Chicago Sun Times

In the Chicago Sun Times, Andy Ihnatko writes an article comparing TIVO to a few shareware programs that grab webcomics from their sites and load the images alone in the shareware viewer. Better lawyers have debated the legality of such programs because of the fact that they essentially use copyrighted materials in ways which the creator has not granted permission but Ihnatko doesn't mention that at all. To the contrary he encourages his readers to use these programs no matter the financial harm that might be caused to the creators:

The only downside to all these apps is the fact that as Internet "scrapers," they divorce the strips from their original Web pages, including the ads that make their distribution possible. But just like dropping LSD in the '60s, you're free to enjoy these apps in the time we have before we understand the true cost to society and the gummint makes them illegal.

One of the programs mentioned by Ihnatko is Comictastic a program for which Spiny Software is charging $15.00 a pop. Right on Spiny's homepage for this program is a picture of its program ripping a Wigu image. Paging Jeffrey Rowland!

Re: Spectacular Cluelessness from Chicago Sun Times

Joey Manley's picture

If it's wrong to steal, it's wrong to steal -- whether the person you're stealing from his a millionaire or a beggar. That's why I've always felt weird about the "stickin' it to the man" argument. Even if it does convince some people, it will only work as long as you remain a beggar. If you get successful, then you're fair game again.

Joey
www.moderntales.com

Re: Spectacular Cluelessness from Chicago Sun Times

Joey Manley's picture

Here's my best thinking on the subject. Instead of fighting them, create
something better, with equivalent functionality but care to avoid harming
cartoonist's business models -- something, in short, that cartoonists
themselves will be happy to promote to their own readers. This will help
dry up the pool of comic ripper users, and, therefore, dry up the pool of
comic ripper applications.

1. Make an online registry allowing comics creators to register the update
URL of their strips. At the same time, instruct the creators to insert a
bit of meta tag code into their "current" comics page, which would look
something like this:

2. Spider program goes through the registry checking those metatags, to see
which comics have updated today. This information is stored.

3. Another online database app allowing readers to browse through a list of
the registered comics, and select which ones they'd like to be notified
about, and how often they'd like to receive notification emails (daily,
weekly, monthly).

4. Server-side cron task which emails one email a day (or week or month) to
each registered user, containing a list of links to his/her selected
strips -- but only if they have updated since the last email was sent to
that user. The links, of course, open up in a full browser window.

I'll be programming exactly such a thing -- which will only work for comics
already on my own database system (Modern Tales, serializer, graphic smash,
girlamatic, webcomicsnation), but a larger more comprehensive application
could be very useful to the community as a whole. And anybody running such
a service could potentially make money with text ads at the bottom or top of
the emails. (That last bit is NOT part of my own business model for the
version of this that will run on my own sites, by the way).

Somebody with desktop programming chops could also potentially build an actual client application which would do the work of the emailer (check to see if any comics have updated, and present the reader with a list of links to full web pages) while avoiding the whole email hassle. Maybe users can choose either/or: install the client app, or sign up for mailings.

Just a thought.

Joey
www.moderntales.com

Re: Spectacular Cluelessness from Chicago Sun Times

Joey Manley's picture

Hm. Perhaps the online registry I'm proposing could be turned into a web service with a public SOAP interface. Or just plain old HTML. Then anybody who wanted to could build a client (on the web or in a desktop app). But then the issue that the database would be tied to one server could be a problem. Anybody know anything about creating distributed, replicable, self-distributing and updating databases (ala DNS)?

Way over my head.

Joey
www.moderntales.com

Re: Spectacular Cluelessness from Chicago Sun Times

dear everyone,

Q: how the hell do you stop this kind of thing anyway?

A: you can't. but you can look for ways to work within the system and make it profitable.

Re: Spectacular Cluelessness from Chicago Sun Times

Shepherd's picture

Oh -- and I sent it not only to the author, but to the general "Letters to the Editor" link. Just to make sure.

Re: Spectacular Cluelessness from Chicago Sun Times

Shepherd's picture

A passing thought: how would the ripper-programmers react if we took their software, cracked it, changed one line of code a bit and distributed it for free?

Do you think the irony would register?

Re: Spectacular Cluelessness from Chicago Sun Times

Shepherd's picture

Now that there's a mature response and intelligent solution. You go, Rowland!

Re: Spectacular Cluelessness from Chicago Sun Times

Erik Melander's picture

Perhaps it would be possible to add a bittorrent like quality to this, that way the users would carry some of the bandwidth themselves.

Legal Cases

Joey Manley's picture

For those who confidently claim that what Comicstastic does is "not technically illegal" ... it is, definitively, illegal in some countries. And precedent in US courts is piling up in that direction as well, though not yet definitively.

Here's a little roundup of legal cases, and other information, with many of these legal cases being defended by "deep-linkers" on the same grounds that Jan and others have used in this thread. "Deep-linking" being defined fairly vaguely in the courts. In some cases, the term refers to linking to any page other than a homepage. In other cases, the term refers to pulling a small piece of one website out of its context and re-presenting it elsewhere, on the web or in any other application (say, RealPlayer, for at least one of these cases). The latter use of the term describes what Comicstastic does exactly, in my opinion.

I do not claim that this roundup is exhaustive. Nor do I claim that all the cases point to the same conclusion -- they don't. The issue of legality has not been resolved definitively in many countries -- but it has in some, with some countries falling on one side of the debate and others falling on the other.

http://www.wired.com/news/politics/0,1283,51887,00.html
http://www.wired.com/news/politics/0,1283,53697,00.html
http://www.golds.co.uk/articles/articles_ec_deep_linking.htm
http://www.findarticles.com/cf_0/m0FWE/8_7/106863495/p1/article.jhtml
http://www.ala.org/Template.cfm?Section=Intellectual_Freedom_Issues&Temp...

If you want to run the Google search I did:

http://www.google.com/search?sourceid=navclient&q=copyright+deep%2Dlinki...

Joey
www.moderntales.com

Re: Spectacular Cluelessness from Chicago Sun Times

Shepherd's picture

Sent this letter on to the Sun-Times. I don't want to be all "look at me I'm so great," but I think it's important to try to strike a balance between offended and polite. I don't think Ihnatko has really thought this through; he's probably just dangerously ignorant instead of malicious.

My letter follows:

Hello Andy Ihnatko, and the editors of the Sun-Times;

Regarding Andy Ihnatko's column of March 16, 2004:

I understand your enthusiasm over this new comic-ripping software, but I don't think you quite understand the creators' position in this. Most creators depend on (or at least hope for) enough pageviews and ad hits to make their expenses, or at least compensate them slightly for bandwidth and hosting costs. When you "rip" their comics using software, you're effectively stealing their work; removing it from the context in which they can make even a pittance for providing the entertainment that you get, every day, for free.

Further, a lot of these creators also manage to scrape some money together by selling merchandise and auctioning art. They also try to help each other out by cross-promoting other comics and organizing special events. By "ripping" the comic without visiting their page, you're also shortchanging their ability to pursue these other revenue streams and creative opportunities.

To put it in context, how happy do you think your bosses would be if somebody provided a free service to deliver a free edition of your paper, with all the ads blacked out with magic marker, every morning? How long do you think you could keep a job at a paper where all the content was provided for free, without any advertising?

We're fortunate to live in a world where talented and creative people want to share their gifts with us; in most cases, without making us pay one red cent. But taking advantage of their generosity by depriving them of even the few pennies they eke out of an online readership is dangerously short-sighted and, after a little thought, more than just a bit mean.

Thanks,

Matt Shepherd
http://www.man-man.org

p.s. "What trips the Ginchy-meter from the yellow to the red zone..." didn't exactly help your credibility, either.

meet them halfway?

you can't. but you can look for ways to work within the system and make it profitable.

I agree. The open letter from the Comictastic guy is worth a read and some consideration, I think.

Would a comics-only RSS reader make scrapers obsolete? I'm inclined to think so, but you tell me. Either way, prohibition seems futile. Let's not make the same mistake as the RIAA.

Re: Spectacular Cluelessness from Chicago Sun Times

Uncle Ghastly's picture

"Anti-ripper week" would make more sense. Each day that week we put up a notice about how comic rippers hurt the webcomic community and how that could mean no more comics. Let them see what no comics for a week feels like and maybe they'll wise up and stop using the rippers.

Re: Spectacular Cluelessness from Chicago Sun Times

Okay, I already regreted saying that. And I'm glad the guy deleted my post from his forum.

I still think the irony would be killer funny, but I do not endorse this attitude anymore.

Re: Spectacular Cluelessness from Chicago Sun Times

I don't know if I agree with even Robin Hood's justification for stealing...
I can cheer him on as the hero and the good guy, but only because it's fiction and you're allowed to suspend your disbelief when it comes to fiction.

Re: Spectacular Cluelessness from Chicago Sun Times

The little menu on the side of the Comictastic image lists a few other comics too, among them Penny Arcade, Sinfest and Real Life.

I forsee a horde of very unhappy webcomickers in the horizon.

Re: Spectacular Cluelessness from Chicago Sun Times

Shepherd's picture

The counterweight to that argument is that the general justification/rationale behind the content-theft issue -- "stickin' it to the man" -- doesn't apply to struggling independent artists. Most people that'd steal a saltshaker from McDonald's wouldn't take a quarter from a blind man's beggin' cup, to stretch a metaphor.

And just because people don't care that they're doing the wrong thing doesn't mean you shouldn't stand up for what's right. I think people can disassociate from the musicians whose work they're downloading because they don't know any struggling musicians. In this case, I think it's easier to make the rippers realize that they're harming people in what they consider to be their own community. I've never met, nor will I ever meet, Mick Jagger. He's bloody rich and a knight and I don't much care if some guy downloads his music. But if you're depriving Jeff Rowland of his mediocre ad revenues, you're just hurting one of the people that makes the Internet a great place to hang out and have fun.

Maybe I'm expecting too much from people, but I'd still like to believe that people will behave honourably given the chance...

Re: Spectacular Cluelessness from Chicago Sun Times

There are several existing mechanisms that one can use to try and solve this issue. The first is the RSS/Atom mechanism. This would allow you to pretty easily define elements and content that could be used for republication, and also provides a pretty simple way of doing it. Penny Arcade uses this model and i find it works fairly well. Heck, I might even work something similar to this for the Man-man site, if Matt and James approve.

The second would be to create Yet Another Distribution Mechanism, but in effect the authors concede that their site is mined.

The Third involves declaring war and getting into an arms race with the miners. The problems with that are pretty well understood, and fundementally futile.

The problem is that there is no real way for folks to protect their provided digital content from theft. All existing forms of DRM can be averted with very little effort, and even the most draconian forms simply make things just a bit harder before they're broken.

Likewise, even if you do provide extra material in addition to the items of interest, there's no guarantee that those items aren't dropped, short of doing things that fundementally aggrevate your audience. (e.g. "Product Placements", shadow pages, intersticial ads, etc.).

While I applaud the efforts of comic guys and the tools folks working together in this case, i'd also note that this problem will keep occuring. Heck, someone who's upset that they'll have to fork over $25 or that the program doesn't run under Linux Yggdrasil they've got ported to their timex sinclair will probably create yet another open source Python hack to do the same thing.

In addition, I'd definitely consider creating something that uses existing architecture. Yes, it's more work. But I think it'll solve more problems.

(oh great, now I've gotten myself into yet another damn project)

Re: Spectacular Cluelessness from Chicago Sun Times

Uncle Ghastly's picture

That's just what we need, some irresponsible asshole telling people to rip off our comics.

It's bad enought that Keenspace has had to impliment methods to stop these damned rippers that have ended up making the comics inaccessable to thousands of legitimate readers only to have the rippers create a new patch to rip our comics anyways. There's just no way to freaking keep ahead of the tech. Any anti-ripper tech we employ gets defeated within a week. The only way to beat this problem is by educating the public that what they are doing is killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

These comics are already free for our enjoyment. All we have to do is go to the sites and read them. Visiting the site generates adviews which generates revinue to keep the comic free for the reader. It's a win/win situation. If comic rippers become the norm for viewing online comics then we're going to end up seeing a lot of online comics simply fold up. Hell, if I wanted my comic read without the context of my site then I wouldn't even bother posting them to my webpage, I'd just post my comics to usenet.

I'm a little pissed off too that Keen Industries had one of the largest makers of these comic rippers on the ropes at one time with threats of legal action and then just dropped it all and let the guy go where in he promptly resumed ripping Keen Industry comics again.

Two wrongs don't make a right (NT)

no text

Re: Spectacular Cluelessness from Chicago Sun Times

Posted the link on Metafilter. This issue comes up every once in a while, but I've never seen anyone actually try to profit from it.

-jeffR

Re: Spectacular Cluelessness from Chicago Sun Times

Good letter, Matt - informative without being condescending.

Re: Spectacular Cluelessness from Chicago Sun Times

Technically the process is the same, but I think from a moral standpoint it's harder to argue to group webcomics with the Faceless Media. The average webcomicker isn't some monolithic entity like Sony Music or Walt Disney Pictures. Like Matt Shepherd says, comic-rippers steal from someone who's really getting limited income if any - "more indie than indie" so to speak.
There are some pirates out there who feel okay stealing from huge coprorations, but not from smaller labels, and there's a moral argument that can be made to that audience.

-JustinPie

Re: Spectacular Cluelessness from Chicago Sun Times

That's exactly what I suggested on this software's forum. And I would SO post that crack on my comic's site if there were any.

--RPin

Were there ever real witches?

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Re: Spectacular Cluelessness from Chicago Sun Times

I am unsure here. You aren't really suggesting to a group of people (geeks) who have just spend years coming up with a rationalization for building vast networks of P2P software primarily for the purpose of pirating music and movies that they feel bad about downloading a web comic?

C'mon now. Didn't you know we have re-defined "fair use" to mean downloading anything we wouldn't have purchased anyway and convinced ourselves that by pirating an album we are actually helping advertise it? Hell, some of the Geek icons don't even think copyright is a valid concept.

I wouldn't expect to get very far trying to tell them to pay attention to such things as intellectual property or copyrights now.

Remember, they aren't really stealing from you, their helping advertise your comic :)

Re: Spectacular Cluelessness from Chicago Sun Times

I am unsure here. You aren't really suggesting to a group of people (geeks) who have just spend years coming up with a rationalization for building vast networks of P2P software primarily for the purpose of pirating music and movies that they feel bad about downloading a web comic?

C'mon now. Didn't you know we have re-defined "fair use" to mean downloading anything we wouldn't have purchased anyway and convinced ourselves that by pirating an album we are actually helping advertise it? Hell, some of the Geek icons don't even think copyright is a valid concept.

I wouldn't expect to get very far trying to tell them to pay attention to such things as intellectual property or copyrights now.

Remember, they aren't really stealing from you, their helping advertise your comic :)

Re: Spectacular Cluelessness from Chicago Sun Times

I am communicating with the the dude who runs Comicstastic (who I might add is very polite and in no way intends to rip off artists). It is our hope to work with him to find a simple solution that will employ creator-built rss feed into his interface, which would allow readers to be aware of our promotions. This may actually become a very positive thing for cartoonists.

Re: Spectacular Cluelessness from Chicago Sun Times

Jeff Rowland said that

Re: Spectacular Cluelessness from Chicago Sun Times

The mindset behind the 'stick it to the man' finds place in the fact that stealing saltshakers from MaccaD's doesn't make it less of a steal, but stealing quarters from blind men make you less than a human being. That's what made Robin Rood a criminal, but also a hero, and that's what makes this guy not only a criminal, but also... Okay, let me just shut up here ;)

--RPin

Re: Spectacular Cluelessness from Chicago Sun Times

It's not that hard really, but the problem even with something like that is securing the roots. In effect, you have to have a point of trust somewhere otherwise it's amazingly easy to hijack the whole affair. For DNS, that's ICANN (Mind you, it's been done before even with DNS).

For the Internet, it's ICANN. They own the root DNS servers, cleverly named A-Z. In fact the thing about DNS is that no single server holds all of the information, but requests get routed around. The other problem is that unlike DNS, we'd need to post around a fair amount of additional information, some of it free structured. Granted, some of that burden could be handled by the individual comic.

There are a couple of ways to go about this, one being that we put the onus of the rights of detail and distribution on the individual, each comic registers to a comic database, which in turn register with each other. The biggest problem I have is not really the load, it's the administration cost. Basically, keeping out the spammers. Hmm... again, I'd have to really get stinking drunk think about this.

Now I'm wondering if it makes sense to set up a Wiki about this.

Re: Spectacular Cluelessness from Chicago Sun Times

The honest truth is, the people doing the rip off downloading don't want to think any farther than, "I can get this for free, so I'm gonna!"

I imagine when someone like Tatsuya gets tired of making half as much as he should because of ripped off revenues and then quits, they won't understand why. Certainly they had nothing to do with it.

-Clint Hollingsworth
The Wandering Ones

Re: Spectacular Cluelessness from Chicago Sun Times

BitTorrent itself wouldn't work (too much overhead for such small files).

kast / konspire2b might work, though it is target more towards people with persistent connections.

Re: Legal Cases (wide lines)

In the future, could you try to avoid using long links? They mess up the page layout. If you have to put in such links, use http://tinyurl.com/ or http://makeashorterlink.com/

Re: Spectacular Cluelessness from Chicago Sun Times

It occur to me that we might be approaching this problem through the wrong angle. The general feeling does not differ one from RIAA towards Napster or Kazaa. That shouldn't be our strategy. We shouldn't put our efforts in shutting this software down, or even try to work together with that author if it's only to lesser the damages of his software, as it wouldn't take long before another comic ripper to be available and we see ourselves yet again on the same situation.

Let's educate our readers, show them how this Comictastic hurts the comics they love, and why shouldn't them be using it. Maybe a big campaign, something like "the anti-comic ripper day" could do the trick.