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Life with/out a Signature

In the business of webcomics, you get used to being paid in clicks and likes and shares rather than, you know, actual money. If your comic takes off across the memefields like a glorious untamed mustang, it’s worth it for the exposure, right? But as my cartooning guru Lea Hernandez says, you can die of exposure. And with the terrain of the Internet shifting from websites to more fluid social media, more and more cartoonists are dealing the experience of having their work shared around the world by thousands of readers…with their name erased.

It’s common for Internet denizens to share favorite comics and illustrations without paying much attention to the source. But some go further than that, actively deleting names, URLS, and even artists’ signatures from the work before passing it along. Most cartoonists, when they discover their work floating around the Internet without attribution, groan with resignation or possibly make an irritated blog post. But when cartoonist Rachel Dukes discovered that this had happened to a strip titled “Life with/out a Cat” from her journal comic Intentionally Left Blank, she crunched the numbers and shared the results in a blog post, “On: Image Alteration and Theft on Social Media."

Rachel Dukes' stolen strip.

Rachel Dukes' stolen strip.

With a little detective work, Dukes determined that the strip first went viral when, on the same day she posted it to her website and Tumblr account, it got shared (with attribution) on the megaforum Reddit. The next day, it was posted to an image-sharing site called 9GAG with Dukes’s URL and copyright removed. From Reddit and 9GAG, the two versions of the strip—one with attribution, one without—spread  throughout the Internet. A few months later, BuzzFeed, one of the major hub sites for links and images throughout the Internet, posted the uncredited version of the strip with Dukes’s URL printed underneath. Unfortunately, this meant that most people who reposted the strip from BuzzFeed did so without bothering to give it any attribution.

Using Google Image Search to track as many appearances of her strip as possible, Dukes estimates that the version of her strip with her name attached has been viewed 81,595 times. Nice numbers—but the uncredited version has had over half a million views. The credited version has had 10,700 Facebook shares; the uncredited version has had a staggering 347,984. The credited version hasn’t made it onto Pinterest at all, while the uncredited version has been shared 6,000 times.

Dukes hastens to add that these estimates are very rough. It’s impossible to locate every website and social media account that’s reposted the strip. But Dukes’s legwork reveals a couple of harsh facts about image sharing. First, lack of respect for creator rights—or even basic credit—is nigh-universal in Internet culture. Unattributed file-sharing is common on libertarian-leaning sites like Reddit and 4chan, on progressive-leaning sites like Tumblr and Pinterest, and everywhere in between. The larger, more legit sites may make an effort to credit artists, as Reddit and BuzzFeed initially did with Dukes’s strip, but they don’t try to curb the attribution-scrubbers. Even sites specifically aimed at artists, like DeviantArt, constantly deal (or, more typically, fail to deal) with members lifting art and removing the attribution to pass it off as their own.

Second, the uncredited versions of comics often spread more quickly than the credited versions. After all, the sites and individuals sharing the uncredited versions are likely to be less ethical about how they use the art. While the credited version may be reposted by fans sharing it with a small circle of friends, the uncredited version can wind up on a series of image-sharing sites dedicated to spreading maximum content for maximum hits.

“In some cases, an individual edits out attribution in order to pass the work off as their own,” says Dukes. “More frequently, attribution is edited out by staff of meme-based websites like 9GAG that profit off of ad revenue. The reason that they do this is because they want readers to stay on their website, clicking from image to image, for a long period of time. That’s how they make their ad revenue.” The last thing these sites want is for users to leave their site to look at an individual artist’s website instead.

This sleazy method of generating clickbait isn’t just bad for the artists; it does a disservice to the site’s viewers, who have no way of finding more work by an artist they like. And creating a relationship between reader and artist is crucial to success in webcomics. “There's a new intimacy to the interaction between creator and reader with social media as it is today,” says Dukes, “because of the immediacy of replies and reactions. Creators have been humanized.”  Stripping the creator away from the comic makes the comic less human, too.

Sometimes webcartoonists with enough clout can fight back. In 2011, Matthew Inman, creator of the enormously popular webcomic The Oatmeal, publicly criticized the image-sharing site FunnyJunk for routinely reposting Oatmeal comics. FunnyJunk responded with a preemptive lawsuit demanding $20,000 in damages for defamation. In retaliation, Inman announced “Operation BearLove Good, Cancer Bad”, a campaign to raise the $20,000 through reader donations, then send FunnyJunk a photo of the money along with a drawing of the owner’s mother having sex with a bear. Inman would then donate the money to charity. Operation BearLove raised $220,024 for the American Cancer Society and the National Wildlife Foundation and none for FunnyJunk, which filed a lawsuit against Inman (and every organization involved in the charity drive, plus state attorney general Kamala Harris) but eventually dropped the suit in 2012.

But Inman is not only one of the most successful current webcartoonists, but a canny businessman who retains legal counsel for just such situations as FunnyJunk’s nuisance suit. Few cartoonists have those resources. And sometimes there are simply too many targets to hit. When a comic goes viral, it may be impossible to figure out which site was the first to remove the creator’s name.

The bright side is that many readers do want to know more about the artists behind their favorite comics.  After Dukes posted on her blog about the spread of “Life with/out a Cat”, she was inundated with messages from people who had enjoyed the strip and were thrilled to find out where it came from—that there was, in fact, an entire website full of similar comics by the same creator.

Dukes suggests that webcartoonists put watermarks on their art and/or place their signature and URL inside the panels to make them harder to erase. Some cartoonists incorporate their name and the title of the comic into the art in decorative ways that can’t be removed without making the edit obvious. But ultimately, the most effective ways to curb attribution-scrubbing are to educate Internet users about the problem and crack down on the less ethical image-sharing sites. Most people, says Dukes, share uncredited comics “simply because they don't know any better. And that ignorance is exactly what 9GAG is banking on.”

Ultimately, Dukes remains enthusiastic about the connectedness of online communities and the experience of making webcomics. “More than anything,” she says, “I think it's important that creators keep creating despite image theft and alteration.  But if we want to stop the complacency directed toward sites like 9GAG it's important that we act as a community—creators and readers—to preserve artist rights and integrity.”


Enormous thanks to Rachel Dukes for talking with me for this column and providing her extensive insight.

14 Responses to Life with/out a Signature

  1. Ryan Holmberg says:

    I thought this was an interesting and important article. I hope you get responses from people who are part of this intractable situation. I imagine other victims are ready to share stories. The people who should be brought into this discussion — the perpetrators — of course won’t have the interest or guts to show up.

    A prominent Japanese manga author last year asked me to try to stamp out some of the unapproved dissemination of his illustration work on the web. I knew it was a lost cause when I set out, and indeed the only blog-owner to respond to my requests only agreed after a small slugfest of threats.

    At least in those cases the artist was getting credited. It is really dismaying to hear that artists’ signatures are being removed from the imagery.

    You write, paraphrasing Dukes: “But ultimately, the most effective ways to curb attribution-scrubbing are to educate Internet users about the problem and crack down on the less ethical image-sharing sites.” Good luck. Who amongst the 500,000 will you start with? How many lawsuits are independent artists going to lodge really? This is like saying that the best way to protect yourself from burglary is to educate potential thieves on the sanctity of private property and then asking the police to nab those you catch red-handed. That combination hasn’t worked yet!

    I think the only real solution is to lock the door and protect the imagery at the source, through the methods you mention (watermarks, integrating signatures into the design), but even better by locking the images through code. I am not computer literate enough to know how that is done, or even if it can be done effectively. At most, watermarks allow you to track the images and ensure that your authorship is recognized (even if that recognition only amounts to identifying you as an interesting artist and thus someone worth stealing from further). Isn’t the real goal to stop the bleeding?

  2. Sophie Y says:

    Once an acquaintance of mine shared an uncredited Joey Sayers strip on Facebook. I said, “Hey, that’s a Joey Sayers strip! Here, let me show you her website…”

    He said “Oh, cool, I’ll add a comment on here to point to the website.”

    I then showed him around her website, where she was now drawing in a different medium (I think the strip he posted had been in colored pencil and now she was coloring digitally).

    He told me it didn’t look like the same artist and promptly deleted his attribution comment.

    I was horrified, but I guess I there’s some kind of lesson about human nature in there.

  3. Mike Rhode says:

    Unfortunately, I don’t see this as fixable. Those of us who were on the Internet in the 90s remember getting chain e-mails stuffed full of uncredited, lifted gag cartoons from older relatives…

  4. Brian Hagen says:

    If you’re looking into a watermark that’s more difficult for thieves to find and remove, Digimarc (built into Photoshop) hides a watermark in the data of your image. No coding required. You still have to find those stolen images, however.

    Low-coding options include saving a blank layer on top of the image, rendering a right-click copy useless. This may or may not be effective when saving as a PNG file, the only compressed file format that allows transparent layers.

    When attempting to get your image removed from a website, if firm negotiation doesn’t work, I would turn next to the website’s advertisers and their hosting company. They might be willing to exert more pressure than you have by yourself.

    These are not solutions, but perhaps they can put a few barriers between your art and the less dedicated image thieves.

  5. El Santo says:

    Technology has gotten pretty good at being able to parse out data, though. Just think of apps like Pandora or SoundHound that can detect what song is being played after a few bars. That same technology is what’s being used on YouTube to track down embedded music that’s being used without permission.

    So why can’t something like that be used for webcomics? Sure, there are weird little spots on the internet that will always thrive and survive (I’m sure there are less scrupulous sites that will allow embedded music). But there ARE hubs. A few are mentioned in this article. Reddit, Buzzfeed, etc. It is not impossible to come down hard on these sites the same way the RIAA went down hard on YouTube. Install the same software to detect which images are being used illegally, and then forward on a cease and desist if it’s detected.

    Now, that opens up another can of worms — namely public domain issues — but I think methods to stem sharing of images without author credit is very, very possible.

  6. Jesse says:

    I took a slightly different approach with my work – I didn’t sign anything at all, but would only post to people I liked and trusted with the work. The audience for what I am doing is small but dedicated and I have not yet experienced anyone who has added or somehow changed the attribution. I would NEVER suggest that other cartoonists or artists do this however since my work doesn’t require authorship as much as it does the understanding of its message. But it did give me the idea that if you have built up enough trust with various sites, I think in the end you actually still come out ahead.

    On the one hand it’s terrible to have your work abused – and the only way to stop them from stealing imagery is not do do any. That’s not a solution anyone wants, especially the thieves who have no real ability to generate anything of quality or value on their own. Paraphrased from Seth Godin, “if you aren’t missed, you don’t have permission.” Not permission to steal, but permission to continue to approach people who consume your work and do so with integrity.

    It’s those people, the people who value your work, and the value they return by supporting to you that is a better problem to solve.

  7. Girltoonist says:

    I have not been signing any of my cartoons mostly because my whole thing is pulling them rough straight from my sketchpad and posting the day I come up with them on Twitter (@girltoonist). A signature would sort of ruin the serial killer-esque roughness of the whole thing that I like.

    But I have since found in the four months I’ve started doing this, that several sites have stolen my comics without attributing them to me or my Twitter handle. So I’m probably going to start signing the suckers somehow.

    Thanks for a great article.

  8. Gerry Mooney says:

    I’ve been reading about this on a couple of other sites and while I sympathize with the cartoonist, the way her url and sig are positioned, a good 3/4 of an inch from the art, at the bottom and on a plain white background, I’m not surprised it was removed. I know this is a problem for lots of artists, but she really needs to learn how to sign her work to at least make it a chore for someone to remove it.

    If I had seen this, honestly it’s not clear that she’s the cartoonist. I’ve never seen a cartoonist sign their work quite this way. In this one instance, she has helped create this problem herself.

  9. Sara says:

    Dude, victim-blaming isn’t cool and you shouldn’t do it.

  10. Gerry Mooney says:

    All I ‘m saying is, I’ve never seen a cartoonist sign work this way. It seems careless and open to abuse.

  11. Brad Curry says:

    Thank you for this article, Shaenon. It disheartens me to see people trying to pass of another’s work as their own.

    However, this got me thinking about the reality of how people read online comics. It’s clear that the ‘content aggregator’ sites are kind of like the new “publishers”. I wonder if any of them would be amenable to a cartoonist doing exclusive comics for them. For example, in my dreamworld Dukes and 9GAG could have an agreement where she does an exclusive set of comics for their site. It could be a win-win, 9GAG knows people like her comic so by suggesting more comics by her that are hosted on their site, they can keep viewers on their page. And of course in my lala land 9GAG would credit Dukes for the work.

  12. Marcus Drakken says:

    Yeah, good luck with completely locking down anything through code. If it can be displayed it can be copied, as the music and gaming industries have already discovered. You can stymie casual browsers with various tricks to get rid of right-clicking, but the major browsers already come with developer tools embedded in the browser. (developer tools allow the user to change the website as displayed on their machine as they see fit) It’s simple to get around any trickery with that. And if all else fails, you can’t stop screen capture.

    If your work is on the internet then any sufficiently determined user can save it. That’s all.

    I won’t say there’s no technical solution, but it’s highly unlikely there’s any technical solution that will stop people from saving images to their harddrives.

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