(Originally posted August 19th, 2014)
This is a rambling mess, and I apologize.
Here’s a quick history lesson; way back in 2009 if you wanted to share an image on reddit.com there were a handful of image hosting sites you could use. These were sites such as Flickr, Imageshack, Photobucket, and Tinypic (owned by Photobucket) which were all riddled with problems that made sharing pictures a headache (needing an account, stupidly long URLs, images going down after hitting an arbitrary bandwidth, etc). If you wanted to share an image you found online you could always link directly to it, but reddit was and still is notorious for causing smaller websites to buckle under the tremendous weight of its userbase (pun intentional). Alan Schaaf, better known as MrGrim on reddit, set out to make "an image hosting service that doesn't suck,” and in 2009 launched Imgur.com to the applause of reddit users everywhere. It was easy to use, quick, stripped images of meta data to preserve anonymity, rarely crashed, and was perfect for sharing.
In the evening of August 5th I received a message concerning my comics showing up on Imgur. An impassioned fan wrote that the “image piracy hub called imgur.com knowingly and willingly plagiarized one of your comics by copying it in its entirety and featuring it on their front page. In doing so, they robbed you of traffic, ad revenue, exposure, and success that all belonged entirely to you.” I may disagree with labeling Imgur as a “piracy hub,” but this brings up a complicated issue content creators like myself are faced with; are third party sites that host our content aiding or denying us of revenue, exposure, and success?
The message goes on to say, “99% of the people who have ever seen your work who were probably exposed to it through [Imgur] have no idea who you are or how to find more of your comics...Your "jhallcomics.com" watermark does nothing to remedy this.” This isn’t entirely true, nor is it entirely wrong; when a comic of mine gets uploaded to a third party site I’ll see a rise in traffic, even more so if they provide a hyperlink, but it’s a fraction of the total views the rehosted comic will get on the third party site. My position on rehosting my work on other sites is and has always been this: don’t remove my URL or signature and it’s cool, add a link to my site and it’s extra cool. Sharing my comics is how new people discover my website, it’s free advertising, the unfortunate thing is sites like reddit and Imgur foster an attitude of convenience and quick consumption over doing right by the artists, writers, and other content creators.
(And, as an aside, it is frustrating as all Hell when users on sites like reddit and Imgur, who consume movies, video games, comic books, apps, websites, and photography, will tell an artist to their face that they don’t deserve to expect compensation for their work and if they wanted to get paid they should have gone into a different field.)
But I don’t view Imgur as a “piracy hub,” or a content stealing vampire, simply because it was created out of necessity and became popular for being exactly what the internet needed. The fact that a user can manipulate someone elses work, strip it of the original author’s signature or URL, and use Imgur to create an image link with the possibility to gain hundreds of thousands of views is not Schaaf’s intent or fault. That said, is it not the responsibility of the site’s founder to curb this nefarious behaviour with whatever tools are available to him? At the very least it should be up to the Imgur users (or "Imgurians," as I refuse to call them) to stop rewarding behavior that takes revenue and exposure out of the hands of content creators.
I found this thread on reddit from four years ago, which just goes to show that since Imgur’s launch there have always been concerns over content ownership. Similarly, four years ago there was an article written about social media’s double standard on stolen content from Imgur, to which reddit responded with, “All I heard while reading this article was, "WAHHH WAHHH WAHHHHHHHHW AHHH WAHHHH WAHHH"”
Classy, and unsurprising. It isn’t hard to see why reddit in particular has not made an effort to implement a way to attribute content to it’s rightful creator. Less is more in the world of social media; too many restrictions or guidelines for users to follow will result in a dwindling userbase, which is much worse than insuring the people who make the content from which your site stays relevant are taken care of.
I can’t blame reddit exclusively for this attitude however; take this comment from the above link, “you are basically complaining about the internet, thats not going to get you far.” It’s the nature of the game, and if you create a business that relies on the internet being altruistic then you are the only one to blame when it fails. I decided to try to bag a unicorn and run a webcomic that pays the bills, I must be outside my mind. But I didn’t choose the webcomic game, the webcomic gang chose me.
Back to the point, I never had a problem with my work being rehosted to Imgur because my work wasn’t being used in a commercial sense. When I was alerted by a fan that a comic panel I drew was placed into an ad without my knowledge or consent, THAT was proper “stealing” and I contacted the agency immediately to demand my artwork be removed from their ads. With Imgur, the intent is to create a page on the internet that hosts an image to facilitate sharing, and Imgur has the capacity to handle high traffic that the site of the images origin may not. My problem isn’t with sites like Imgur, it’s with the constant uphill battle that content creators like myself face trying to get credit for our work. You can hardly make a living producing content widely adored by the internet, but you’ll make a killing if you manufacture a system to take files and host them somewhere else, totally disconnected from their creator.
In the message I received from a fan, he says “you can see from the statistics on [your comic that was uploaded to Imgur http://imgur.com/gallery/w3ldggF ] that it received over a quarter of a million views.” A single comic on my site is certainly not getting no 250,000 views by its lonesome, not even the same comic in that Imgur link, but that’s because I don’t have the audience that Imgur has. Let me make this abundantly clear: as a webcomic artist, people sharing your work is HOW YOU GET EXPOSURE AND NEW FANS. No one is typing random URLs into their search bar hoping to land on a site. So, what are the options available for my fans to share my work? They can link to the page the comic is on, link to the image directly, or upload it to a third party site. Now, if they link to the whole page it could take upwards of 1 second for it to load for the people you are sharing it with, so that’s out. As for linking directly to the image, the webcomic site may not be able to handle a surge of traffic so usually that’s out. We’re left with uploading to Imgur, maybe with a link to the original page in the comments.
I get it. In fact, if you look at the comics I submit from my own reddit account I use Imgur for the majority of posts, with a link to my site in the comments. When I do end up linking directly to the comic image on my site, it will go down for some users if it gets popular enough. A proposed solution to this problem, which is largely ignored even by me, is to link to the orginal comic page and post an Imgur mirror in the comments in the event the first page crashes due to a traffic increase. The only problem being that when people on reddit see a link to something other than Imgur they get a little confused and avoid it (except minus.com for gifs which is weird because it is basically useless on mobile. Seriously, stop using i.minus).
Going back to the fan message, he goes on to say, “judging by average online ad CPM, the bare minimum that imgur earned in ad revenue for stealing YOUR work is $500, and that's just for this particular repost. There are other cases where your work has been stolen and featured on their front page. If you add it all up, they've stolen thousands of dollars worth of ad revenue from you by now.” Now, I don’t agree with this totally, but let’s explore this line of reasoning because it is not totally devoid of merit.
Looking at it like that makes me feel like someone living in a cardboard box, looking over at the mansion across the street. GIVE ME SOME OF THAT ACTION! But it’s not as simple as that. It’s not thousands of dollars of ad revenue being stolen from me, because on my site where the comics originate I don’t generate the number of pageviews necessary for those kinds of returns. In fact, the revenue Imgur makes in part from having pageviews from reuploads of my comics can pretty much be thought of as their commission for bringing in more visitors than I could on my own.
Then again, it’s my shit, so give me some goddamn money.
Final thoughts? I don’t know. This isn’t a black and white issue so I have no black or white response. I think every variable of this equation is imperfect. Reddit, Imgur, my site.. we aren’t selling tires - it’s not so cut and dry. You can’t make a minor tweak to one or more of these sites and fix the attitude of an entire online culture.
If you take anything away from this, let it be this: be good to the people who make the shit you don’t hate.