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Beware Intellectual Property Thieves! Also – I’m HUGE in Vietnam

By Phil Charron on July 26, 2012

The other day I jumped into Google Analytics to review some site stats. We’re all trying to write a post that beats Russ’ famous Teavana entry. There’s so much SEO cred built up in that story that it’s almost a lost cause. I do my part, though. For instance, I won’t link to that post from here. Even though it’s awesome, internal links can add SEO credibility. I am vying to win the Think Brownstone badge of honor – seeing Russ’ sad Deniro face when he announces that one of my posts beat his. My post on Divergent Thinking vs Convergent Thinking is getting close. You should read it. Go ahead, click the link, share it with friends.

So, when I was poking around our site analytics, I noticed something curious. The term “reset button” was one of the leading search terms driving traffic to the Think Blog from Google. After a little digging, I discovered that Mike’s awesome illustration of a reset button was lifted by a few bloggers. At the time, if you had executed a Google Image search for the term “reset button,” the distinctive style of Mike’s illustration helped it stand out a few rows below the fold. Some bloggers felt the same way and borrowed the image.

That sent me on a Google scavenger hunt to see what other original images were lifted from the blog. Curiously, the only other discovery was some site in Vietnam that re-used this image of me from my divergence vs convergence post back in October. The post is some kind of boring marketing strategy article. More importantly, I’m HUGE in Vietnam.

So, why do I care about our imagery being borrowed on other sites? I am a bit of an Intellectual Property (IP) wonk. At one time I ran the media production and graphic design department for a software company. I spent time with our general counsel fixing some internal IP theft that predated our work in the organization. We then co-wrote the IP policies for the company. From that point on, IP fascinated me. I have worked hand-in-hand with client IP attorneys to develop policies and requirements around copyright, trademark and user-generated content. I designed a series of IP workshops for my digital design classes at Philadelphia University. I deliver a similar presentation to clients and as a guest lecturer at other universities and organizations. I’m not an IP attorney, but if I could do it all over again, I would definitely play an IP attorney on TV.

Coming This Fall: Phil Charron, IP Attorney

IMHO, the current landscape of IP laws is antiquated and poses serious, unintended problems for creators and publishers. The only way to fix it is to get politicians to pass laws, but Vote Charron For Modernized Copyright Laws is a terrible campaign slogan, so nothing happens. In the meantime, creators are best served by learning what the laws mean and making conscious decisions about how to proceed.

One of my favorite quotes about all of this is from my pal Todd Marrone, an art teacher, accomplished artist and story slam champion:

“I teach art to make a living, I make art to feel alive. The more people that see and enjoy my work, the better. My creative fruits are like my kids, I don’t mind that they succeed without me. As for the people who steal work for monetary gain, they have to look themselves in the mirror.”

Todd’s sentiment addresses the moral side of IP theft, but not legal side of it. Folks who “borrow” things on the internet are often confused. For example, when I pose question students about image theft I often hear, “It’s on the internet, so it’s in the public domain.” Legally, that’s not true at all. Just ask the former publisher of Cook’s Source magazine.

So, Russ and I tried to decide what to do about this “borrowing” of our blog’s artwork and we noted a few things: None of the blogs that used our imagery compete directly with our business. Nobody misrepresented what we do or questioned the quality of our work. What bothered us most was that they didn’t attribute our work. So, I contacted the authors of the blogs and asked them politely to include a link to the Think Blog and a credit like, “Image provided courtesy of Think Brownstone, Inc.”

One author chose to take down the image – which makes me sad, but it was her prerogative. One other recently updated his blog to credit us for the image. I’m not providing links to these sites for three important reasons:

  1. The bloggers who took down the image or added the credit don’t deserve negative publicity for doing the right thing
  2. The offending site doesn’t deserve the smidgen of SEO credibility a link would give them
  3. I am HUGE in Vietnam, why can’t you just trust me on this?

So, a band of thieves is raiding our site to steal Mike’s illustrations. What do we do next? Well, as we get around to celebrating our five-year anniversary at Think Brownstone, we’ve been talking about updating our digital properties. We know that an update means more than just a facelift. Russ and I have informally managed our IP standards for the blog – opting for original work, asking for permission before using someone else’s original work, or using images that we consider open to interpretation and attributing them. We never had a formal policy nor did we think about how to let others borrow our work. We may consider marking all of our work with Creative Commons licensing, or perhaps we just make things easier to borrow with attribution. Whatever we do, I assure you the #1 priority is not to damage my Vietnamese fame.

It’s important to note that, while the work that Mike (or any employee) does for Think Brownstone becomes Think Brownstone property, we are grateful for what Mike’s illustrations have done for the Think Blog. Most clip art is easily recognized and can leave a bad impression on your audience. It is great to be able to back your work up with original artwork that comes out of the creative process. We feel strongly that protecting Mike’s Blog illustrations for Think Brownstone also protects the integrity of anything Mike puts his stylus, pencil, marker or pen to.