One of the great oft-touted benefits of webcomics is that a creator can reach a worldwide audience with ease. The flip side of that coin, though, is that while it exposes the work to a huge potential audience that is willing to support the creator financially, it also exposes the work to a huge potential audience that is willing to steal the creator’s work, taking credit themselves and not offering even any acknowledgement, much less compensation, to the creator.
Some level of this stems from the internet’s generally open culture. “Like” and “share” buttons are baked into many content-rich sites precisely so people can help spread ideas faster and easier. Many sites—from Wikipedia to the New York Times to FreakSugar—provide access to their content for free. This ongoing notion of “information wants to be free” has permeated internet culture since before there was even a world wide web.
The problem, though, is that this free access to information and ideas frequently gets confused with a sense of ownership of the ideas. “Well, if this artist makes this art available to anyone online for free, it must mean it’s free to use.” This is patently untrue. While it is possible that is the creator’s intent, from a legal perspective, that is not automatically assumed. In fact, legally, it’s assumed that the creator holds the copyright on the piece until/unless they expressly give it away in a written statement.
Recently, a division of Little Caesar’s operating out of Mexico lifted a pizza-related comic almost verbatim from cartoonist Anthony (Nedroid) Clark to promote their own pizza. When Clark tried contacted them about it, they did not respond at all, but simply deleted their version. As of this writing, Clark has still not heard back from them, nor has Little Caesar’s made a public statement about this.
The comic was likely swiped by someone working on their marketing team. Probably a single individual who passed off the idea as their own in order to meet a deadline or look clever to their boss or something. Generally, these people are assumed to know better than to rip off others’ ideas without consent, so it’s hardly surprising that the legal team didn’t dig very deeply (if at all) to uncover the idea’s origin. That said, not returning contact with Clark immediately with an apology and quickly following up with some offer of compensation is a large PR mis-step.
Regardless, that one individual who lifted the idea as their own should have known better. We, as citizens of the web, need to continue calling attention to and shaming companies trying to pass off webcomic creators’ ideas and properties as their own. Little Caesar’s is hardly the first company to do this, and it likely won’t be the last, but every company should take a PR hit at the very least when they participate in this type of behavior.
Do we need to add classes on copyright law and intellectual property rights for graphic designers and ad agency people? Maybe, but I daresay the need is larger than that. This is basic knowledge that everyone online should know. This is part of basic media literacy. Sure, this wouldn’t have been really needed when I was in school once upon a time, but it’s the 21st century and we can’t afford to not know this! Otherwise creators will wind up spending more time vigilantly trying to protect their comic instead of actually making them!