Flattery or Piracy?

Photo: Marilyn K. Yee / The New York Times

Richard Prince. The Art of the Copy.

Since the late 1970s, when Richard Prince became known as a pioneer of appropriation art — photographing other photographs, usually from magazine ads, then enlarging and exhibiting them in galleries — the question has always hovered just outside the frames: What do the photographers who took the original pictures think of these pictures of their pictures, apotheosized into art but without their names anywhere in sight?

Randy Kennedy. The New York Times. December 6, 2007.

In a New York Times article this week about the Richard Prince retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, Randy Kennedy talked to Jim Krantz, whose image for a Marlboro Man ad had been appropriated by Prince into an artwork and is featured on the Guggenheim’s poster. “When I left, I didn’t know if I should be proud, or if I looked like an idiot,” Krantz said. Prince told Randy Kennedy that he was trying for an effect he couldn’t achieve by creating his own images. “He once compared the effect to the funny way that ‘certain records sound better when someone on the radio station plays them, than when we’re home alone and play the same records ourselves,’ ” wrote Kennedy.

With Prince’s artworks selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars, the issue of authorship of the images has become thorny. “Mr. Krantz said he considered his ad work distinctive, not simply the kind of anonymous commercial imagery that he feels Mr. Prince considers it to be,” wrote Kennedy. “People hire me to do big American brands to help elevate their images to these kinds of iconic images,” Krantz told him. And Krantz asked, rhetorically, if he italicized Moby Dick, would it become his own artwork?

I’ve quoted and paraphrased almost all of Randy Kennedy’s article. There’s more to it, though. It’s worth clicking the link through to the story itself and to view more images that The New York Times ran with the story. As a media reviewer I quote extensively, rather than paraphrasing, to allow the writer’s own voices to speak, and to retain the context of the pieces. But fair use, homage, copyright, and art statements are thorny issues on the Internet. I use many images from Flickr, always attributed to the photographer, and mostly only if they have a “creative commons” tag, which allows their use if it isn’t for commercial gain. When a photographer sends the mixed message of having an “all rights reserved” tag and a “blog this” button on the image itself, I may e-mail them to ask permission to run the photograph.

The Creative Commons

Michael Almereyda set Hamlet in New York at the turn of the twenty-first century. Hamlet’s father had been CEO of the Denmark Corporation and Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet searched for his identity amid advertising images — Sam Shepard as Hamlet’s father’s ghost materializes out of a soda vending machine, for instance. Almereyda was criticised for the movie being larded with product placements but he paid the companies to display their products.

There’s still a class system in the world and in America, people who have things and people who don’t, and people who have things tend to make sure they keep having them and controlling them, and that’s aligned with corporate power, which is such an overarching power that you can’t even attack it without becoming part of it. It simply absorbs any kind of criticism. I don’t know that that’s the most profound aspect of the film but it seemed like a natural way of talking about contemporary power, and it’s aligned with consumer culture, people telling us that the more we buy, or if we buy the right things or wear the right things, we’ll be happy. I don’t think that’s completely divorced from what Shakespeare was talking about, because he was drawing lines between private experience and public experience, and authentic being and inauthentic being, all still a problem, if you’re awake and alive. So, Hamlet sparks a lot of these questions, and we’re just kind of scribbling in the margins sometimes, but I hope the film does also directly address some of those themes, and ideas that are spoken about in the soliloquies.

Michael Almereyda, interviewed by Pop Matters.

Hamlet anticipated the current prevalence of urban surveillance technologies — blogs and web cams as well as security cameras — and the way that they’ve made our lives open to being observed by the world. “A lot of the play is about people spying on each other and being watched and playing parts and being aware of themselves playing parts,” Almereyda told Pop Matters. “And that corresponds to contemporary reality where cameras are on the present and images within images are on the present, at least in the city. So that seemed like a natural way of mirroring things that were going on in Shakespeare’s text.”

These are the issues that Lawrence Lessig has been thinking about too, which drove him to create the Creative Commons licence. He’s commented on how difficult it is for young filmmakers to work in New York, where advertising images and iconic buildings and displays are considered copyright, and filmmakers must pay to use them in their works. Where should the product end and the city begin? he’s wondered. His system is a code of ethics for bloggers and independent artists to refer to and quote each other’s work. His 2004 book Free Culture is avalailable as a PDF download.

All creative works—books, movies, records, software, and so on—are a compromise between what can be imagined and what is possible—technologically and legally. For more than two hundred years, laws in America have sought a balance between rewarding creativity and allowing the borrowing from which new creativity springs. The original term of copyright set by the First Congress in 1790 was 14 years, renewable once. Now it is closer to two hundred. Thomas Jefferson considered protecting the public against overly long monopolies on creative works an essential government role. What did he know that we’ve forgotten?

Lawrence Lessig shows us that while new technologies always lead to new laws, never before have the big cultural monopolists used the fear created by new technologies, specifically the Internet, to shrink the public domain of ideas, even as the same corporations use the same technologies to control more and more what we can and can’t do with culture. As more and more culture becomes digitized, more and more becomes controllable, even as laws are being toughened at the behest of the big media groups. What’s at stake is our freedom—freedom to create, freedom to build, and ultimately, freedom to imagine.

Jacket Copy from the

Uploaded by 2dognite on Flickr. Image is All Rights Reserved but has a “Blog This” button

My Blogs are Mangy Old Fleabag Mutts

Almost as soon as I made my first posts on my blogs hosted for free on WordPress, their content was “scraped” by what seemed to be an offshore, perhaps Spanish based, company that used my content to wrap Google word-assocation ads around. I feel like my blogs are mangy old mutts that every passing parasite hitches a ride from. The media focuses on individuals re-mixing magazine articles, advertising and movie images and music in their blogs, or the piracy of whole artworks, but there’s a whole black market based on shadowy companies creating crafty ways to steal content from individuals that appears on their blogs. It’s entirely mechanical based around algorithms, keyword searches and re-directing the flow of RSS feeds.

There is a growing and real concern that site and blog feeds are being used to totally replace any original content. Some crafty website owners are using multiple feeds to pull information from other sites into their own, making it look like the site has an interesting and original collection of content, when it is actually stolen without permission from other sites.

In general, the rise in the use of feeds on websites and blogs seems to be permissible, if only headlines or excerpts are used and not the full post or article content. The issue of content theft arises when this is done without your knowledge or permission using the full content.

from the blog Lorelle.wordpress.com

The Spanish company in question is named Bitacle The blog Plagiarism Today explained in September of last year how Bitacle’s service operated.

When you first visit the Bitacle home page, it appears to be nothing more than another personal home page, much along the same lines as Netvibes and Pageflakes.

Much like those sites, it contains a built in search engine for sorting through blogs, Web sites and more. One of the tabs on the search feature points to a search feature called “Aggregates”. A search there pulls results from blog entries, much like the regular blog search, but the results don’t lead to the original site, but to cached copies on the Bitacle server.

It’s those cached copies that have generated the bulk of the controversy. Originally, the cached copies offered the content under a Creative Commons License that permitted commercial use, offered no clear attribution to the author, no permanent link back to the original piece and were surrounded by ads. Though the ads remain and no clear attribution has been offered, the CC license has been removed and a link to the original work has been added. There is even a comment form on each piece to let the reader discuss the entry without visiting the original site.

Plagiarism Today

Plagiarism Today pressured Google on how its adsense program was being abused, and an update on Plagiarism Today a month after the post I’ve quoted attributed the disappearance of ads from the Bitacle site as proof that the pressure was successful. I haven’t kept up with the permutations of content scraping, comment spam, the gaming of links and referrals to artificially boost the popularity of sites, or copyright infringements. I consider my blogs as portfolio’s and I believe that WordPress itself tries hard to screen out content spam and how difficult it is for them to keep several technological steps ahead of the pirates. I consider perhaps only as little as 2% of the traffic driven to my sites are genuine readers or seekers. The rest are probably scavengers and parasites.

Raiders of The Lost Ark

Reference or Robbery? Google’s Searchable Database of Books

This image was used by Geoff Manaugh on the post The Future Warehouse of Unwanted Books on his Bldgblog. He quotes from a Guardian article about the construction of a book warehouse.

“The warehouse is extraordinary,” the Guardian writes, “because, unlike all those monstrous Tesco and Amazon depositories that litter the fringes of the motorways of the Midlands, it is being meticulously constructed to house things that no one wants.” Those “fringes” are outside London.

“When it is complete next year, this warehouse will be state-of-the-art, containing 262 linear kilometres of high-density, fully automated storage in a low-oxygen environment. It will house books, journals and magazines that many of us have forgotten about or have never heard of in the first place.”


This warehouse is necessary because the copyright laws in England demand the office to keep copies of everything that’s been granted copyright for a certain amount of years. These books have been deemed “low use”. Few readers, if any, want to refer to or read them, but the law demands that they must be kept.

I’m tempted to say that we need an injection of Buddhism – or, at least, the doctrine of non-attachment – into the field of library science. But I’m not a Buddhist, so I’m not going to say that. (Interesting, though, that religious beliefs could affect both the shape and the very existence of libraries).

In any case, last month Anthony Grafton took a long look at the future of the library, gazing upon the history of textual accumulation from the Library at Alexandria to Google’s new book-scanning project.


This reminded me that there have been objections to the Google plan to digitize entire works from entire libraries and make them freely available online because it may allow the content to be scraped and misdirected for commercial gain in the way that content scraping has bitten into blogs.

Google Print, an enterprise in which Google is scanning books from five major research libraries, along with submissions of publishers, to create a searchable database of the written word. In September, the Author’s Guild, a trade group representing writers, sued Google, claiming “massive copyright infringement.” The Association of American Publishers has also sued Google over its project, which just resumed after being suspended for a few months while the company re-examined the issues. Last month, a competitive group, the Open Content Alliance (which includes Yahoo and Microsoft), announced plans to scan collections of other libraries, while trying to accommodate the objections made to Google.

Edward Rothstein. November 14, 2005. The New York Times.