Come back here, wind… we may need that caution back

April 11th, 2007 by Jeff | Dump Core

As most of you know, I’m not usually one to jump into the latest webcomics controversy. It’s sad, really, that such a relatively small community can be so self-absorbed and petty as to snipe at each other and prove just how unprofessional it can really be. Webcartoonists have a particular knack for picking up on the slightest little bit of miscommunication or overflowing ego and turn it into an embarrassing morass, while the rest of the Internet and the world at large beyond it barely even know we exist. (There are much more constructive ways to use those energies, such as, say, uniting together to promote webcomics as a whole.) That’s one reason I typically stay deathly silent whenever something like this crops up; I want to be treated as a professional, and professionals do their jobs dutifully while respecting their peers and even their adversaries. I despise politics, even on a microscopic scale.

But that’s enough of that little rant. This webcomics controversy actually has a bit of merit, and since nobody else seems to be taking the position I currently have, I might as well put my two cents worth in and hope it doesn’t turn back around to bite me. It most likely will, given how things online can easily be taken out of context, but hopefully reasonable folks will read this entire post and not just one person’s misrepresentation of it.

By now, many (if not most) of you have already heard the news, but for those who haven’t: About five and a half years ago, “Shmorky” (who I will refer to by this handle, since he produced the content in question under this pseudonym and he prefers to remain anonymous, even though many people already know who he really is), the creator of the Keenspot comic Purple Pussy, created this comic. Over the years, it has proven quite popular, having been linked and copied across the Net repeatedly in forums, blogs, and other venues. The merits of this repeated copying, whether it benefited Shmorky by promoting his work or was a detriment to him in lost advertising revenue, is not the question here; it stands as a fact, though, that it has been seen world wide by thousands of people both on and off Keenspot. It has also been reproduced in print through Keenspot’s Free Comic Book Day Spotlight contribution for 2004, which has been distributed to thousands more across the US (and probably beyond). And yet, in what many have considered a blatant act of plagiarism, world-renowned artist Todd Goldman has apparently reproduced Shrmorky’s work without permission, even exhibiting the work in an art gallery in Los Angeles and potentially earning huge revenues from its exhibition. (For more in depth detail of this situation, as well as tons of links to media and blog coverage, check out this Something Awful thread started by Shmorky himself.)

Now, before I say anything else, let me make one thing perfectly clear: I’ve met Shmorky in person, and I really like him. He seems to be a wonderful person and is unquestionably a talented artist. I may not always agree with the mature nature of some of the content he has produced, but as a fellow artist and webcartoonist, I have a great deal of respect for him and what he’s accomplished. I’ve also offered him at a minimum some moral support on this issue and offered a little bit of layman’s legal advice based on the little bit of legal research I’ve done on some related topics. If the accusations against Mr. Goldman can be proven true, I sincerely hope that Shmorky is sufficiently compensated for the appropriation of his work.

That said, I’m not sure if the well-intentioned tactics currently being used by the online comics community to draw attention to this situation are really going to have the affect everyone thinks it will have. This is a thorny situation, and it’s definitely thornier for no one more than Shmorky himself, who stands to lose a whole lot more than those who may be “aiding” him if these tactics backfire.

What tactics are these, you might ask? Well, for one thing, just do a Google search for “art thief”. At the time of this posting, the number two ranked result is a Digg of “Todd Goliath (Goldman), Art Thief”. Keenspot has even gotten into the game by preempting its usual internal self-promotion to use the system-wide Newsbox to link to this Digg. The Wikipedia article for Goldman linked above even includes coverage of the situation (although the article is currently locked so unauthenticated changes cannot be made).

Why does this concern me? For one thing, there’s a lot of accusations going around and apparently very little actual communication. Has anyone even bothered to contact Goldman about this? Gary Tyrrell has apparently tried (to which I give him a good deal of journalistic credit), and he received a rather suspicious reply whose authenticity is still in question. Beyond that, there seems to be a lot of finger pointing and mudslinging and not much else. There’s a little saying in this country about being innocent until proven guilty, and as far as I can tell, there hasn’t been any legal proceedings to evaluate any evidence. (For that matter, is this a criminal or civil law issue? Given the potential exhibition and merchandise dollars involved, I’m leaning toward criminal copyright infringement, but I’m not quite sure.) Mind you, I’m not necessarily coming to Mr. Goldman’s defense; I am, however, trying to remain objective. And since I am neither a lawyer (and I’m betting neither are the vast majority of you) nor am I a judge hearing this as a case in court, my opinion (and yours) doesn’t amount to much more than the proverbial hill of beans. Until actual legal proceedings commence and a qualified judge actually issues a ruling, there is nothing more going here on than a series of suspiciously similar images being compared on a few Web sites. It’s careless to say much else about the situation without a lawyer looking over your shoulder.

Given that, here’s what’s really got me worried for Shmorky. Some folks have interpreted the “reply” posted to Fleen as libel (not slander; do your research), that Goldman has called Shmorky a pedophile. If this message is eventually proven to have come from Goldman (check the comments for some compelling evidence in that direction), it could very well indeed be ruled as libel. Again, that’s a determination only a judge could make. But what about all these webcartoonists going about calling Goldman a thief? Who’s to say Goldman can’t turn this around and counter sue Shmorky for libel as well? Or if Shmorky doesn’t have the resources to initiate copyright infringement proceedings, what’s stopping Goldman from getting the ball rolling with a libel suit himself? True, there’s a lot more people out there than Shmorky saying this, but it was his Something Awful post that kicked of this tempest and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to be argued that the rest of us are lemmings following his lead. Goldman can’t sue the entire webcomics community, but he can sue the man who started things off by calling him a thief. And if this mess does finally make its way into a court of law, Goldman could very well be proven guilty based on the evidence at hand, but Shmorky could be facing a vicious civil libel suit at the same time. That’s a lot of lawyer fees for a small, independent artist to be paying. (One hopes he can find one to work pro bono and not on retainer.)

Thus, I recommend caution. I think the images of Shmorky’s work and Goldman’s work speak volumes in and of themselves. Promote the comparison and let viewers judge for themselves. Adding potentially libelous commentary isn’t going to help matters. I also think evidence should be preserved: images with date/time stamps intact should be archived and, better yet, copies of the Keenspot Spotlight 2004 FCBD book should be set aside as examples of prior art. That’s going to help Shmorky a whole lot more than all the chimps in the monkey house throwing feces at the 800 lb. gorilla in the next enclosure.

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