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An Interesting Thing Happened on the Internet

Yesterday, somebody pointed me to a FriendFeed thread in which an artist and a FriendFeed user were working through issues of intellectual property and Internet etiquette.

The FriendFeed user, Kol, had bookmarked an image that he found on a site that allows artists to share their work with each other. In typical FriendFeed fashion, this bookmark appeared in FriendFeed with a thumbnail of the image he had bookmarked and with places for other FriendFeed users to comment on, “like,” or re-share the bookmark and its related thumbnail image with their own sets of FriendFeed friends. The artist objected strenuously (and not at all politely) to the fact that this thumbnail appeared on FriendFeed. Kol and other FriendFeed users tried explaining that Kol had not, in fact, infringed on the artist’s rights by bookmarking her image since thumbnails do not violate copyright and since the image was licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 License (though the artist has since removed that license). In short, the artist was well within her rights to ask (politely) to have her image removed from FriendFeed as a matter of courtesy, but she was probably not within her rights to accuse the original poster of wrong-doing. That’s the sanitized version, at least, which I reproduced here at some length because of difficulties with the original material.*

So, except for the attendant drama, the issues seem to be garden-variety intellectual property confusion. But all the drama involved in this particular exchange was actually kind of illuminating.

First, it reminded me that as an information consumer, I’m used to the feelings of frustration involved in finding out that I can’t freely use other people’s stuff however I want to even if I cite my sources. I run up against the flip-side of these frustrations only very rarely, however, and they’re good to bear in mind. I happily slap Creative Commons licenses on lots of the stuff I produce, but I remember all too well the first time I found my work being reproduced and shared in a way that I didn’t particularly appreciate but that fell squarely within the parameters of the license I’d chosen. There’s nothing like working up a good head of righteous indignation only to remember that they’re doing exactly what I said they could do and no more.

This particular discussion might also be less straight-forward than it at first appeared. Licenses always trump copyright, and the original image** has license-like language attached to it that prohibits “use” of the work outside of a specific community. The artist clearly thought that this applied to bookmarking and sharing via FriendFeed, though that’s not at all clear from the term “use.” Kol either didn’t read those instructions, or read them but didn’t think they applied to bookmarking, or read them but didn’t think they constituted a license. (To be fair, I’m not completely sure they are a license, either, but I think good etiquette would be to assume that they do.) And where does all of this leave the artist’s fans? If they want to share bookmarks with other fans or potential fans, they can’t turn off the “suck in a thumbnail” feature of these social networks. The only way that gets turned off is if the originating site has lock-down features like Flickr does for the images its users make private.

Little did Kol know when he bookmarked this image that he’d bring down the wrath of the artist, spark a huge debate on FriendFeed (and a ton of re-shares of Kol’s post), and set this librarian to musing about the incredibly intertangled worlds of intellectual property, etiquette, and the Internet.

* I don’t like talking about things without linking to them, but this one has me on the fence for two reason: 1) the link may die suddenly since there was a promise to delete the thread as soon as someone from FriendFeed had seen and responded to the original poster, and 2) the language in this thread is decidedly not safe for work, or for kids, or for me. Still want to see it? Here you go. [Edit: yep, the original post is gone now.] I may or may not screen-grab the post for posterity. I haven’t decided yet if that’s fair to all involved, or if I want to have that kind of language saved anywhere associated with me. Call me a prude, if you want, but them’s my boundaries and it’s up to me if I want to cross them.

** I’m aware that by linking to that image, the artist may find my post, so I’ll just say right up front that while I welcome constructive comments and discussion, I reserve the right to delete any crude or abusive comments. And I get to decide what constitutes “crude” or “abusive.”

One thought on “An Interesting Thing Happened on the Internet

  1. I said this on FriendFeed already, but here it is again: This is a great summary of the issues of intellectual property, (n)etiquette, and social networks involved in this situation. I particularly like how gracefully you glossed over the ugliness of the comment thread on FriendFeed (which I, too, found almost too awful to read).

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