On blogging: The great “viral content” swindle
by James Glazebrook
You may have seen this dashing fellow on the Internet recently. You might have even seen these photos. If you did, the site you were looking at stole Zoë’s photos, published them without her consent, and used them to generate traffic and, most likely, revenue.
It all started when So Bad So Good shared some photos to their Facebook page, of the alleged 104-year-old, posing on the platform for the U1 at Kotti. It isn’t clear where they got those images from, as they didn’t include any kind of credit. But we do know that the man pictured, Günther Krabbenhöft – represented by “agents for unique characters”, We Are Unlike You – isn’t 104. More realistic estimates put him at around 70.
Spotting an opportunity, I commented on the post with a link to our own blog post, a streetstyle shot of Günther walking through Graefekiez. Sure enough, that brought us a lot of clicks – about 40% more traffic than in the previous month – but it also brought the attention of websites that pride themselves on finding and sharing viral content. They refer to it as “sharing”, but we call it what it is: stealing.
Bored Panda set the tone for all the other articles we were able to find through trackbacks and Google reverse image search (which we learned about from @eljojo – thanks!) Have a look here – each of those thumbnails leads to at least one article that has used that image in those dimensions. That’s just one of our three images of Günther, and it doesn’t included photos edited beyond recognition by Google’s bots.
Most of the articles we found included the 104, many with that weird get-out that “the Internet” is getting its facts wrong, and all featured images alongside ours from sources who presumably weren’t contacted for permission either. A lot of them completely ripped off the “original” Bored Panda article. But, as it’s not their content anyway, why should they care?
When we contacted Bored Panda, we received an email from the article’s author saying that they’d decided to remove the images. The fact that they responded so quickly, to an email sent via a form that actually has a field for “removal request”, leads us to believe that they subscribe to the school of thought that one should “ask for forgiveness, not permission”.
Bored Panda were only closing the barn door after the horse had bolted. By the time our images were taken down from that site, they were all over the “viral” Internet. It takes just one website to turn stolen content into fair game, and other sites are happy to rip off photos, as long as they include the name of the source, and a link to it. Those second-tier sites are legion, and rarely have contact details through which to demand a removal.
A couple of bigger websites approached us for our permission (denied), and, when pushed, a national British newspaper offered an insubstantial amount of money. Given the circumstances, we were almost flattered that people had thought to ask us, but Zoë can’t pay her rent with “credits”, and we can’t build an audience on the clicks of curious people wanting to ogle an apparently ancient “hipster”. Our uptick in traffic came primarily from my comment on So Bad So Good’s Facebook post, and those people won’t be back. If we were playing the same “viral” game as these websites, those clicks would translate into money. But we aren’t – we’re focussed on creating original content.
And that’s the most depressing part of all of this: watching the Internet cannibalise itself. As soon as one online entity had a “hit” with the Günther photos, everyone else had to have them. Major newspapers and best-selling magazines aren’t above this – everyone wants the hot new thing to post, in the hopes that their improved Google rank will inch their audience, and profits, up ever so slightly. This “viral” layer of the web relies on content creators like us to thrive, but we won’t be able to create the content it needs if we can’t make a living. It’s pretty disgusting to see this up close.
So where does that put us? We’ve been advised that we are in a position to demand our content’s removal from all these websites, and to even invoice them for the revenue they likely generated from it. But how do you contact a site that doesn’t feature so much as an email address, and what are your chances of getting a response, let alone compensation? Right now, we’re focused on INTERVIEW.de, who aren’t responsive despite me taking to Twitter and Facebook to complain (sound familiar?) We think they’re taking Andy Warhol’s art of appropriation a little too far…
Let’s be clear: we love it when you share our content. When you tweet one of our photos and @-mention us, you could bring us followers; when you link to our website, we may gain readers. Sharing the photo without a credit isn’t exactly in the spirit of Twitter, but at least you wouldn’t be making money from our creative work. To all our genuine fans, thank you for sharing!
And to all the people out there creating unique content, keep up the good work. Take solace in the fact that this is one of the few cases of plagiarism we’ve (knowingly) experienced, and it can be traced back to us “putting ourselves out there”. Let us know if you ever encounter anything like this, and we’ll be happy to share our learnings and give you some support. Together, we’ll kick some web ass!
EDIT: INTERVIEW.de have since responded to my Facebook post and taken down the photos. However, I still take exception to them using the photos in the first place. Here’s how that conversation is developing…