Abusing goodwill

I like to think that the world is based on goodwill. People are, generally speaking, nice and, by default, they will respect and help others. Certainly humans are fundamentally and inescapably social creatures that need each other on a minute-by-minute and day-to-day basis, and I think that being nice is one of the attributes that which fuels the reciprocation that makes helping someone else ultimately worth it for us ourselves.

I also think that the social web is an expression of the niceness that lubricates society. All the mores that have built up around blogging and wikis and sharing and Creative Commons are based on being nice: if you quote someone’s blog, it’s being nice to credit them; Wikipedia encourages everyone to be nice to newbies; sharing anything with strangers is an act of niceness in itself; and Creative Commons licences are predicated on the idea that people will be nice and respect them.

Whilst niceness isn’t universal – there are people who aren’t nice – it is a desirable attribute, so much so that niceness is taught and enforced from birth. I doubt there’s anyone reading this who wasn’t told as a child to “be nice” or to “play nicely”. Nice is good. We need nice.

This might explain why I get so cross when I come across examples of people, or especially businesses, not playing nice. But thanks to the internet, we now get to call out companies who, whilst sticking to the letter of the law (or Creative Commons licence), are flagrantly abusing its spirit.

First up, Virgin Mobile Australia. They found a photo of two American girls on Flickr, and decided to use part of it on billboard and online ads, with the taglines “Dump your pen friend” and “Free text virgin to virgin”. Alison Chang was the girl featured, and her family is now suing, saying that the ad “caused their teenage daughter grief and humiliation”, and listing both Virgin Mobile and Creative Commons as defendants.

The photo in question was shared on Flickr using an attribution licence, meaning that technically, it could be used by any company for commercial purposes without requiring permission from the photographer (although the licence has now been changed to “all rights reserved”). But there are legal issues around this use, because, despite the liberal reuse licence that was used, Australia requires model release forms to be signed before an image can be used in an advert. The original photo is still on Flickr, as is a photo of the billboard ad.

But what really stings about this is that it’s just not nice. Whether or not the CC licence allowed for commercial reuse, what Virgin Mobile and their PR companies – Host and The Glue Society, according to blog, Duncan’s Print – did was really unpleasant. There was absolutely no reason why they couldn’t have used stock photos for any ads that needed to feature people, but instead they whipped free photos off Flickr without giving a moment’s thought to the impact it might have. And Virgin Mobile Pty Ltd.’s response is absolutely disgraceful. The AP quotes them as saying:

Virgin Mobile Pty Ltd., the Australian company, released a statement saying the use of the photo is lawful and fits with Virgin’s image.

“The images have been featured within the positive spirit of the Creative Commons Agreement, a legal framework voluntarily chosen by the photographers,” the statement said. “It allows for their photographs to be used for a variety of purposes, including commercial activities.”

The “positive spirit” of Creative Commons is about constructive reuse, and this cocky attitude that they can take someone’s image and insult them publicly in the name of advertising is repulsive. Virgin and its PR company might not have broken the letter of copyright law, but they certainly showed no thought or consideration for Alison Chang.This sort of behaviour is just not nice, and Virgin should be castigated for it.
Now, on to Jo Jo, whose story is much more straightforward. Jo Jo writes about and photographs food on her blog Eat2Love, the trouble is, journalists keep lifting her ideas – both in terms of the things that she writes about and the way that she styles the food she photographs. Whilst this has been going on, according to her, since January, the straw that broke the camels back for her was seeing photographs that looked very much like hers on the cover of Gourmet magazine. And it’s not just Gourmet. In an email to me a couple of days ago, Jo Jo names another two publications and talks of a “major” website that poached her work.

Again, the journalists, photographers and editors who are lifing ideas from Jo Jo aren’t breaking the law. You cannot copyright ideas, and I think that’s a damn good thing, otherwise nothing would ever progress, but regularly poaching someone’s ideas without ever acknowledging how heavily your work is influenced by them, or without building something original on top of their idea, isn’t a very nice thing to do. Journalists and photographers get paid for their creativity, and nicking someone else’s is a cheap shot.

I know people who would probably respond to this by saying “Well, tough – that’s how it goes when you put your stuff online for free, and you just have to suck it up,” but the sad thing is that it forces a binary decision to be made. Either Jo Jo puts up with being constantly ripped off, or she stops blogging. She decided to at the very least cut back on blogging – she’s written just two posts in the last two months, and has removed much of her archive:

90 % of the articles on this blog have been removed from view. what you are viewing are my write-ups of a few food events, and some restaurants.

I think that’s a real shame.

I have real sympathy for Jo Jo. I remember when I was a budding music journalist trying to get a commission from a very high-profile glossy music magazine. I was asked to fax them five different feature ideas, which I did. I was fobbed off by the editor with some feeble excuse as to why my ideas were no good, only to see a few months later one of them written up by someone else. Could I prove that it was my idea? No, I couldn’t, but it was distinctive enough that it pretty clearly was my idea. And that was really galling – I felt like I’d been played for a fool, and it was this sort of shitty behaviour that, along with the shitty pay, drove me away from music journalism.

Now, I think there’s a different thing going on when people release under Creative Commons, and make the choice to let others reuse their work, or when you can see a professional benefit from seeing your stuff redistributed by other people. But one of the main tenets of Creative Commons is attribution, saying where you got stuff from. When someone poaches ideas and doesn’t admit that they weren’t being original, that’s unacceptable.

The flip side is that it’s easier and easier to find out who is ripping whom off, and who’s not playing nice. Companies are going to have to learn that it’s just not worth their while being the schoolground shark that tricks the other kids out of their pocket money, because they are going to get found out. Even monkeys have a sense of what is fair play, and in the blogosphere, this innate sense is getting honed to a sharp point.

So my advice to any business intending to take advantage of all that lovely free content out there? Play nice.

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