Internet hype exploded around a feud between the Oatmeal — a webcomics and humor site based in Seattle and run by Matthew Inman — and FunnyJunk — a site that has a reputation for reblogging humorous content from other sites without crediting the original artists. According to the Oatmeal, FunnyJunk stole a bunch of the Oatmeal’s comics, and in a critical blog post, Inman asked that they be removed. That action ultimately prompted a bizarre lawsuit threat against the Oatmeal.
Attorney Charles Carreon, representing FunnyJunk, alleged that the Oatmeal had defamed FunnyJunk by writing the critical blog post. Carreon demanded that all reference to FunnyJunk be removed from the Oatmeal and that $20,000 in damages be paid. If the money wasn’t delivered, Carreon said he would file a federal lawsuit. Inman felt that Carreon and FunnyJunk’s claim was groundless. Rather than pay, Inman launched a fundraising campaign on the Oatmeal conducted in its humorous style that raised over $200,000 for the American Cancer Society and the National Wildlife Federation. Inman’s intent was to prove that “philanthropy trumps douchebaggery and greed” and that there was a better use for $20,000 than paying off websites that operate under questionable principles. Faced with the spate of negative publicity, Carreon had no choice but to cut his losses and drop the threats against the Oatmeal. All the money still ended up going to the designated charities.
The fact that a webcomic site galvanized national interest and raised as much money as a charity gala puts a spotlight on comics and the level of clout they wield as a form of popular entertainment and art. Webcomic artists Brad Guigar, Dave Kellett, Scott Kurtz, and Kris Straub recently authored a book on creating and maintaining webcomics. It mentions how the rising popularity of comics on the web has shifted control of the medium away from imprints such as Marvel and DC. Scott McCloud has said as much in his seminal works on what he refers to as “sequential art.” Because web-based comics have become more popular and easier to produce, independent artists can carve out a digital niche for themselves and their artwork. But how do issues of ownership and artistic rights play out on the internet?
Local comics artist David King, whose work can be found at reliablecomics.com, started doing comics on the web as a way to force himself to meet deadlines. For many artists, the possibility of a vast, digital audience hungry for fresh content provides great motivation. That worked for a while for King, but his ability to survive as an artist in small press has depended on forming relationships with other artists and finding a publisher who was willing to support him. Despite the cartoonish appearance of his comics, the material is often serious. King hypothesizes that his work isn’t subject to theft because his style and sense of humor aren’t suited to contemporary internet culture, which thrives on memes and reblogging and which embraces things based on quick jokes, like lolcats and de-motivational posters.
Phil McAndrew, proprietor of philintheblanks.com, is another comics artist based in San Diego. He found success on the web when a development executive stumbled on his comics online. Now he has a project in the works at Cartoon Network, and he curated an event at Space 4 Art in East Village as a run-up to Comic-Con. He was surprised to find that one of his comics had been posted to FunnyJunk, naturally without crediting him. McAndrew’s stuff tends more toward mustache-related humor, prime material for digital theft.
McAndrew accepts that theft is in keeping with the nature of the internet. “If I were to sit there and try to hunt down all the websites that repost my comics without my name on them,” he says, “I wouldn’t have any time to draw new stuff. So most of the time I just shrug my shoulders and keep on drawing.”
That seems the predominant response among comics artists who put their work out on the web. King, McAndrew, and Matthew Inman — if his response to the lawsuit threat from FunnyJunk is any indication — appear to agree that simply being credited, and having their respective sites linked to, would be sufficient compensation. King said via email that “comics shared online aren’t public domain material, and they aren’t free for the taking.”
Unfair use of the sort allegedly practiced by FunnyJunk is hardly limited to webcomics. Bill Watterson famously refused to license Calvin and Hobbes for merchandising rights. His assumption was that plastering Calvin’s face on T-shirts and coffee mugs would cheapen the value of the comic. But unlicensed reproductions of Calvin and his imaginary magical tiger sidekick have been available for decades. Those ubiquitous window stickers of Calvin urinating on a Ford logo? All are counterfeit.
Calvin and Hobbes knockoffs represent a straightforward case of infringement, whereby parties with no legal right to copyrighted material reproduce and sell that material without the permission of its owner. Webcomics, and the case of their ownership and fair use, exist in a more nebulous space. For webcomic artists, the way to turn art into business is through advertising and merchandising, both of which are dependent on web traffic. For example, if a blogger reposts an artist’s comics, but fully acknowledges the source of that artwork, the net result should be that people who enjoyed the comic would go to the artist’s site and buy merchandise, or, at the very least, surf around.
As if to demonstrate this principle, Matthew Inman has created a website titled BearFood (bearfood.com) that can be used to share web content without losing reference to the responsible artists. Phil McAndrew’s site has gotten a stream of traffic from BearFood, where McAndrew is credited for creating a comic in which a young man demonstrates his machismo to such a degree that he gains control of the mustache formerly worn by his intimidating potential father-in-law.
McAndrew summarizes this link between contemporary internet culture and artistic content: “The internet is just where a lot of things happen now, and the entire world can see or read or experience those things and react. It’s just easier to share things. And if you’re doing something really terrific, it’s going to spread like a wildfire.” ■