Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Larson Not Laughing

I wrote the below piece on January 3, 2007, and it's become one of the most clicked-on single entries at the Mike Lynch Cartoons blog. I wrote about fair use and creators' rights. Here it is:

Blogger/Motivational Speaker Graeme Codrington (bio here) has a problem with Gary Larson. Gary Larson has asked him to not post Far Side cartoons on his (Codrington's) Web site. Graem responded online:

"Now, Gary Larson, in a nice enough way, has asked us to remove the page. What I don’t get is his logic. His argument is all about his emotional attachment to his cartoons, his desire to exercise control over their usage and the fact that they are 'his children.' Sure. But what about the 20 Larson books I have in my library? Why isn’t he concerned about them? I’ll be honest and say I don’t think I’ve dusted them in over a year, and one or two may have torn pages. Does that make him sad?

"Why can’t he just be honest and say, 'Hey punk, if you didn’t pay for the pictures, you can’t use them.' I did actually pay for them - the pics on the site were all scanned from legal copies of his books that I own."

Link here.

There are some comments from readers on his blog. Some are on Graeme's side. And, although the blog entry is from October 2006, I only recently saw it, and I wanted to talk about getting cartoons for free on the Web, and the rights of cartoonists.

Graeme feels he's entitled to take the work from Larson becuase he's bought a lot of Far Side merchandise over the years, and "contributed to what I assume is a fairly wealthy man’s fortune." And he assumes that having bought the book entitles him to using the man's work to his own ends.

OK, a lot of people clip out a cartoon and put it up in their office or school locker.

Taking cartoons is one thing. Taking them for profit is another.

Here's Graeme again:
"A website I own hosts a number of talks that can be used in youth groups. ... One of the talks was about how to use Gary Larson’s cartoons to teach young people about God. It was a fun talk, and it included some examples of his cartoons."
And Graeme has stumbled on the whole key: fair use.

At the Carnegie Museum, in one of the back rooms, there's a cartoon of mine (the one above) that someone taped to the door. My dad's a docent there, and when I saw it, I thanked him. He told me that he didn't put it there.

Someone else -- someone not related to me -- saw it in WSJ and liked it enough to bother to clip it and tape it up to cheer up the messy Museum break room.

Now, if someone was, for instance, using the cartoon to sell something -- that would not be OK with me.

This person would be using my cartoon as a tool to help them personally profit.

"As an author and presenter myself, I accept that people use my work," Graeme writes. " ... I don’t pursue the copyright I own and am entitled to. Is that just me? I’d like your opinion."

Well, that's his business. But as far as cartoonists are concerned ....

A cartoonist giving away his or her cartoons is a hot topic and has lit up some pro and/or amateur cartooning boards. But some do offer their cartoons for free to Web sites. How do you make a living giving away your cartoons?

One side of this debate says EXPOSURE IS GOOD and the other says YOU KNOW, PEOPLE CAN DIE FROM EXPOSURE.


If someone's taping up a cartoon of mine in their school locker or their MySpace page, then that's fine with me. That's personal use. But if someone is using another person's creation without permission for business purposes, then that's wrong.

I don't think it's wrong to a cartoonist give away their cartoons. It's their business. And most of the gag cartoonists who do give away their work are only giving away a portion of their output. (I can't speak for Web cartoonists who tend to put 100% of their product out there for free.) A lot of businesses give away stuff (free t-shirts, pens, 2-for1 coupons). It's a way to drum up business and remind people you're out there. But I also believe that it's up to the creator to choose which way to go on this issue.

But it's flat out wrong to use cartoons for a commercial purpose without making an agreement with the cartoonist.


Brian Fies said...

I am so committed to strong creator's rights that I have a hard time seeing how anyone can take and use the work of another--not only without guilt or remorse, but somehow thinking they've got a moral right to it. It's that arrogance that really gets to me, and I'm bothered that it seems increasingly common. One gets the feeling that there's an entire generation coming up that feels that way.

I look at it like this: I couldn't come into your house and take your toaster. Even if you recklessly left your toaster sitting on your front porch for anyone walking by to grab (e.g., posted your cartoon on the Internet), I'd still be wrong to take it.

But, they argue, a cartoon or story isn't the same as a toaster. A toaster is a unique physical object, while someone can make a million digital copies of your cartoon without touching the original. My reply is that they're taking and benefiting from the results of someone's thought and labor, which to my way of thinking ought to be the most precious, valuable, closely protected property of all. Good ideas are hard and rare! Going back to the toaster analogy, an individual toaster isn't worth much; you can buy one for a few bucks. But the idea of a toaster--the notion of how to build a machine that safely and reliably toasts a piece of bread--was worth millions.

The value of a cartoon, essay, story, etc. isn't in the ink and paper it's printed on (or the $15 you paid the bookstore for your "Far Side" collection). Its value is in the ideas it represents and communicates. It seems so obvious and fair to me that the person who created the idea is the only one with the right to say what happens to it.

That said, I also support the ideas of fair use and public domain. You ought to be able to excerpt a work for criticism, education, etc. That's necessary for a free exchange of ideas in an open society. And after a while, after creators have had a fair chance to exploit their work themselves, it ought to be turned over for the public. I'm glad that anyone can now write a Dracula or Sherlock Holmes story after Stoker and Doyle made their coin on them. People of good will can quibble over details like what constitutes fair use and how long a copyright should last.

But just taking someone's stuff and then acting like you're doing them a favor? That's wrong, man.

Nelson said...

As an artist and writer, I automatically own (and control) the right to make copies of my works. That's why it's called copyright.

Aside from "fair use" or work done "for hire", no-one has the right to make copies but me -- unless I give my permission. I can license my copyright; I can even sell my copyright. But to whom and under what terms -- that's mine alone to decide.

A publisher might negotiate a license to print my work in X-number of COPIES of a book: no problem.

Someone buys a copy of that book, to look at my work: no problem.

Someone makes copies of my work from that book, for their own purposes: that is a problem!
It is a problem because I am not being compensated for my work; it is a problem because I do not have a say in how my work is being used.

I'd like to know how the person who takes my work without compensating me would like to find out he or she will not be getting paid for work they have done.

Well, actually, no, I don't care how they'd feel; it's me they're taking advantage of.

And as for their argument that I might have already earned "enough" for my work -- that's just another lame excuse for stealing.

I'm not aware of any law or custom that sets a cut-off point at which someone has earned "enough" for what they create.
I might give some consideration to such a noble concept when I see bankers and money managers and corporate executives having such cut-off points applied to their compensation.

Anonymous said...

I have to comment on this.

This guy lifting Far Side cartoons has an idiotic sense of fair use.
Larson was being kind in his way of politely asking his to not use his work - which he has every right to do.

I have to deal with these tpyes of people ALL the time. It's very simple. People who have your work on their sites and are making ANY money on it are stealing. It's that simple.
People who use your work online, even though they are not making money (but have not asked permission) are being, at the very least, inconsiderate. When people in the latter situation have their use of your work pointed out to them and, basically, to you to go ____ yourself (yes this happens!), they just bumped up their use of your work, IMO, to copyright infringement and can be sued.

I've heard more excuses for people who lift my work than I can post here. Bottom line is - they didn't draw it, it's not theirs. It makes no matter who or where they got it from, or how much exposure THEY think it will bring you or whether they think it's "public domain" or whatever the excuse. It changes nothing about their use being illegal.
Now if a cartoonist wants to give their work away, I guess that's their perogative. I, personally, don't think that's the best idea, but that's not MY decision to make.

josembielza said...

Am I giving my work for free? Could be. It's a bet. To use a poker simile, I'm betting on preflop with my cards. You wanna see all them? Call or raise. Let's say I'm publishing on the web -with a Creative Common License- an 80% of my work. Making myself known in creative communities where my work can be spreaded and known. Almost a year ago, an editor contacted me -hey, I've seen your work in that site and I like it for my magazine- and now I have a cartoon page published four times a year.

But I don't like others to steal my cards and bet with them. That's unfair play. Although I believe that a cartoonist strenght lays on his/her ideas and that the misuse of one single cartoon can't affect the actual or future wealth of a cartoonist, I also believe that if you use a cartoon to illustrate your work, and that you get paid for your work, you should also pay the cartoonist.

Of course, if my cartoons are shown on a 007 film and due to that I'm hired by -let's say- The New Yorker, I won't sue a case against the producers!

Jesse Hamm said...

I agree with Graeme Codrington that Larson's "children" argument doesn't make sense, but the bottom line is that Larson owns the material, and shouldn't be browbeaten for asserting his right over it.

Codrington points out that he himself doesn't mind when people infringe on his copyrights, but that's not a two-way street. I'm sure we've all had friends who are loose with their stuff and then expect us to be the same way. "Dude, I'd lend you MY car! Wha-dup?!" Plus, I doubt the market for Codrington's material is nearly as strong as Larson's market, so he's talking about much smaller numbers. "I gave away my snorkel; why won't you give away your boat?"

Another point Codrington misses is that Larson has to protect his work not only from misuse, but from the precedent of misuse. Like, if someone comes along later and wants to infringe on Larson's copyrights, they could use his failure to stop the more innocuous infringement by Codrington and others as a precedent which allows them to proceed. A quirk of the law that I'm sure Larson's attorneys are all too familiar with.

The "buying your stuff gives me the right" argument is also weird. Larson could as easily complain,"I provided you with years of entertainment, and now you want it for free?"

Also, I resent Codrington's hints that Larson is wrong because he's rich. It's a non sequitur that wouldn't bear scrutiny if he came out and said it, so he implies it around the edges. Bad show.