Content aggregators like Dose.com have turned the virality of online content in to big business, even as the authorship and ownership of original material has become more obscure. Bob speaks to Dose CEO Emerson Spartz, copyright lawyer Richard Stim, and The New Yorker columnist Andrew Marantz about the economics, ethics and legality of aggregating other people's content.
BOB: And I’m Bob Garfield. In this week’s New Yorker, Andrew Marantz writes about a young entrepreneur, Emerson Spartz, and his website, Dose. Dose is an aggregator, one of many sites that collects content from around the internet. But unlike Google News, BoingBoing, Slashdot, or even the Huffington Post, Dose doesn’t always excerpt content and link back to the original source; it copies others’ content wholesale and optimizes it with editing and headline treatment. But while Marantz’s piece was not flattering to Emerson Spartz, it left open the question of whether author ownership has been made obsolete by the internet.
SPARTZ: There are billions of photographs being published to the internet and then there are billions more re-mashes and remixes and photoshops and changes and alterations and different spins and angles taken on those original works of art.
BOB: Emerson Spartz of Spartz Media.
SPARTZ: At the core of it: we are scouring the web, looking for content that we believe our audience will enjoy and that they will share. We always try to give credit, when we can identify who the original source was of that photograph, but we live in a 'remix world.'
BOB: The New Yorker article centers on one particular piece of shared content from 2014: a slideshow of 23 people from around the world posing with the food they typically consume in one day -- from 900 calories for an impoverished Botswana mom to the 5400 calories of fast food for an Illinois truck driver .The images were drawn from a 2010 book by Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio titled “What I Eat: Around The World In 80 Diets" -- a volume of photojournalism compiled through a vast expense of time, money and creative ingenuity. List price for the book: $40. The Dose piece mentioned the authors names, but made no reference to the book. By contrast, when Wired.com used some of those images, it linked directly to the book’s Amazon page and quoted the authors. That was fine by Menzel, who is is not unsympathetic to the Spartz argument of expanding the reach of the author’s journalism...within the bounds of fair play.
MENZEL: If people really understand and take the work and think about it and know the real purpose and reason behind it…yes, that’s good. But we make a living the old-fashioned way and we can’t eat clicks or tweets.
BOB: It’s not just that Dose, as Spartz would have it, skims the cream from billions of images of uncertain provenance from the web. The site uses its proprietary algorithm to flag internet memes before they peak and then often simply cuts and pastes entire slideshows. It then distributes the items, stimulates sharing on Facebook, and sells millions of dollars worth of ads seen by those drawn to the content.
STIM: [Laughs] I don't know what he can say in his defense.
BOB: Richard Stim is a copyright lawyer and blogger.
STIM: The straight out copying without any public benefit is never going to be excused as a fair use, or it shouldn't be.
BOB: Stim says that in the internet age copyright and fair use have become murky. As Spartz asserts, we are now in a 'remix world,' a sampling world, a sharing world, a curation world. But when people say “all information should be free" -- well, to paraphrase the great Inigo Montoya, 'I do not think it means what they think it means.' Freedom of speech does not mean freedom to plagiarize other people’s speech, and to profit from it. Yet in the wild west of the worldwide web, content repackagers like Spartz operate with impunity, telling aggrieved copyright holders if they don’t like the reach they are enjoying by having their work expropriated, they can always file a takedown notice under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act -- even though that law was meant to protect Internet Service Providers, not pirates.
Richard Stim: It used to be, in the world of copyright, like, you would ask for permission or ask for forgiveness. But he's in a new world...If you look at his site, on the bottom of the page there's, "How to File a DMCA Notice," so he's looking to take advantage of the safe harbor and avoid all liability completely. And if you do have to take it down, probably the shelf life on the list that you're getting taken down is already over so it really doesn't matter to him. I think he lives in a world beyond copyright.
BOB: And maybe we all do. Even Andrew Marantz, whose piece portrays Spartz as a blind opportunist subordinating others’ rights to the desires of the free market, can’t entirely dismiss the underlying rationale -- or rationalization.
MARANTZ: He thinks that what the market wants is ultimately to the good and I’m not so sure about that. The First Amendment is a very broad and powerful protection which is, in most cases, obviously a good thing. But where it gets complicated is that you have kind of an unregulated market when it comes to speech, writing, photography, art, journalism…you can’t really put many restrictions on what people do when it comes to speech. So its kind of up in the air.
BOB: Is it? Intellectual property is still property: the output of the author’s time, investment and ingenuity. You don’t have a cash cow if someone is helping themselves to the milk for free. I asked Spartz why lifting the slideshow wasn’t just theft.
BOB: Now, Emerson, there is the "remix world" that we're living in, that you correctly describe, and then there's the "ransacking world." At least in the case of the Peter Menzel photos, this wasn't a case of locating individual pieces of content from the stuff-o-sphere and assembling them to make a larger point; this was a case of somebody who assembled images for a book that was itself copyrighted and sells that work for his livelihood.
SPARTZ: It wasn't like we just went and bought the book, scanned the photos, and put em up--there were thousands of other sites that were putting these same photos online. And I would argue that there are several million people who saw these photos and had a mind-expanding experience as a result of us publishing these photos that they wouldn't have had otherwise.
BOB: So let me ask you this, Emerson: What if I were to found a website called "Meme-Me.com"--which, incredibly, is not taken -- and what if I just took everything that's on Dose, took out the bylines, and otherwise maybe changed the graphic display, but otherwise just lifted it all--just cut it, pasted it in to Meme-Me, and started another company doing exactly what you're doing: encouraging sharing, based on your proprietary algorithm, and selling advertising against the clicks at Meme-Me. Wouldn't you be kind of put out?
SPARTZ: I wouldn't care because we are not actually competing. Nobody chooses: 'Should I go to Meme-Me today or should I go to Dose.com today?' They don't. They just are on Facebook and their friend shares an article and they see it. And if it looks good they'll click it. And then if it is good they'll share it. And there are thousands and thousands of Meme-Mes out there that are competing with us every day...something goes viral and there are hundreds, or thousands, of other websites that publish the same thing. And then it's a competition to see who can get more page views on to their article.
BOB: As I said: the Wild West. Brutal and lawless and where the slow or weak are gunned down in the street. Lawyer Richard Stim agrees that technology and economic reality -- such as the onerous cost of suing deep-pocketed media companies -- have left copyright law impotent to stay ahead of infringers, righteous or otherwise. He can be prodded, though, into musing about ultimate justice.
STIM: Morally, yeah, it seems kind of reprehensible. You know the other thing about Dose is, sometimes websites do get shut down because they violate the law so much that eventually it just doesn't work. I mean, remember Napster. All of a sudden it was gone. Websites disappear and then new start-ups learn from their mistakes and...or pop up with some other thing and get shot down. That's the way it is, so
BOB: But in the meantime, what happens to Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio?
STIM: Yeah, in answer to your question, I think they're kind of screwed.