Friday, February 15, 2013

Men of Steal

An Editorial by Ken Quattro:

     To say I'm indebted to the Internet would  be a huge understatement. It has opened doors into research that were never available before it existed. It allows me to communicate with people all over the world in seconds. And it has introduced me to friends that I never would have met without it.
      Yet one cancerous side effect of this magnificent communicative tool is that it encourages laziness. Sloth. One of the Seven Deadly Sins if you believe sins still exist.
     Right click.
     It's so easy, isn't it?
     Recently I came across a website with a page devoted to the artist Elmer C. Stoner. As I have written my own piece about Stoner, I began reading it. I was only a few sentences in before I noticed a remarkable similarity between it and my article. While the "author" had padded the first part of his bio with info obtained (but not credited) from, and a few speculations based on nothing in particular, he followed the structure of my article exactly. The references to Stoner's patron Fred Morgan Kirby, his involvement in the Harlem Renaissance, his failed early marriage. There was a mention of the 1939 World's Fair children's book I also wrote about and the comic books he chose to list were all from my piece. He even included information that artist Samuel Joyner related to me in a personal letter. There was more, but you get the gist.
     I wouldn't have minded at all if the "author" had made the simple gesture of acknowledging my article as his source. But he didn't. Instead he employed the quasi-plagiarism  preferred by middle schoolers who change a few words of a Wikipedia entry and turn it in as a term paper.
     To add further insult, nearly all of the images he used to accompany his article were lifted completely from mine. And to put his intentions in an even worse light, he ran a copyright notice at the bottom of the page with the year 2009; one year earlier than my posted article that he swiped.
     I wish I could say that this was the only time I'd experienced such blatant theft, but it's not.
     Some years back I wrote an article about Archer St. John and his publishing ventures. This was the first comprehensive history ever written about St. John and an effort that took a decade of research on my part.
     Within two weeks of my putting the article online on my Comicartville website, a St. John Publications entry appeared on Wikipedia that was basically a Cliffs Notes version of my piece. The Wikipedia editor, who hides behind the username "Tenebrae" (which tellingly means "darkness" in Latin), that contributed this entry has gained the enmity of a host of legitimate comic historians for his unabashed thievery. When confronted about his theft of my St. John article, he shrugged it off by claiming mine was only one of his sources. A provable lie since mine was the ONLY source available at the time.
     Several years later, I published the testimony from the historic Detective Comics v. Bruns Publications trial on this blog. Again, this was the first time this information had been presented to the general public since the trial in 1939. Soon after, a publisher who I had previously allowed to reprint one of my articles, decided to download the trial transcript and publish it without any acknowledgement of where he had gotten it.
     These are but a few of my experiences. And I'm not alone.
     Jim Amash, artist, writer and the man behind some of the most historically important interviews ever conducted with comic creators, has been similarly victimized. He has many had quotes and anecdotes taken directly from his interviews and dropped into others writings without any credit to him. This practice occured so frequently and had become so prevalent that Jim decided in the past year to stop doing interviews altogether. His decision is a great loss to all of comic fandom, but one I can fully appreciate and have contemplated myself.
     Virtually every serious comic historian has a similar story. Dr. Michael Vassallo, Bob Beerbohm and Roy Thomas have all related tales of plagiarism and intellectual property theft. And yet it continues. If anything, it is getting worse.
     On the chance that some of the research-phobic freeloaders are reading this, I have to ask:
     What happened to common courtesy?
     What is gained by stealing someone else's work?
     What is lost by giving someone else credit?
     I understand that research isn't easy. It can be a painstaking, boring, and often, expensive undertaking. But if you don't want to make that effort, at least acknowledge the people who do.

Note: Please feel free to copy this post and reprint it anywhere you like. 


  1. Although I can't say I have never been guilty of not crediting someone when I should have, I have always been able to lay the blame with other people... editors, layout artists, sloppy fellow writers. But of course this is not a viable excuse. My name was on the piece, I should be able to guarantee its quality.

    Seems like people are slowly starting to consider anything on the internet as common property: they download "free" music, get all the latest comics on the Wednesday they arrive in shops digitally, and plagiarize anything and anyone they feel like, just because they were "clever" enough to find it on the web.

    I am not convinced that a world in which any digital information is free is necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I believe it to be inevitable. However, the transition will be a tough one. Laws will have to change, attitides will have to make a C-change, the very way we (re)define possession of intellectual property will have to change.

    In the meantime, people will get hurt. Feelings will get hurt. The comics community will hurt from people like Mr. Amash now no longer willing to publish his interviews. Creators will get hurt, for they will not have the pleasure to show the world their memories and contributions to it one last time before they die. No one wins during this transitional period.

    Sadly, I think those railing against the practise, no matter how right they are, are fighting against windmills.

    Times, they are a changin'. (I think that's Bob Dillon!)

    Ramon Schenk
    (yeah, that's my real name.)

    1. What we can do, Ramon, is make some noise.

      I personally plan to "out" anyone from now on who has stolen from me. I will name names. This may not stop the practice, but in a small community such as comic fandom, establishing a bad reputation for being a thief will make a difference. And perhaps, in "our" little corner of the Internet at least, it will become a better place.

      I can dream, can't I?

  2. I know from whence you speak, Ken — and well said. Although I've only felt a fraction of the injury, not having been very prolific over the past decade due to health, it just boggles the mind. What happened to common courtesy, indeed?

    1. It's the lack of respect for others driven by a relentless pursuit of self-aggrandizement, Brian. As long as the thief can make himself (or herself) look better, it doesn't matter who gets hurt in the process.

      As I stated above, I won't keep quiet about it anymore.

  3. Pace Mr Schenk, I don't think that there was anything slow about people grabbing for the idea that anything found on the Internet were somehow in the public domain.

    And, as an economist, I would note that a good or service whose production is not rewarded in correspondence with its marginal benefit will be under-produced. It's just fine if authors are seeking indirect or non-pecuniary benefits, and give things away, but well-defined and respected property rights are still required if we are to have as much of this work as clearly pays for itself (in the benefits that it gives to someone).

    I'm very glad that you plan to name names. At the same time, be prepared for spurious namings — a discernible share of the people who are not above stealing content are not above clouding the issue by claiming that originators are plagiarists.

    As to Wikipedia, I consider it to be hopelessluy corrupt in other ways, but it does have a policy of respecting copyrights. Lodge complaints; pursue them; get thieves banned. (And recognize where you have a compilation copyright!)

    (There's going to be an interesting tension there, concerning Wikipedia's clumsy grasp of reliability and their need to acknowledge some of their actual sources.)

    1. Very thoughtful comments, Daniel.

      The disregard for copyrights and intellectual property rights extends beyond the Internet. It has become far too commonplace to find published print works devoid of attribution or acknowledgements. And that is the fault not only of shady writers and lazy editors, but of unquestioning readers. Demand more.

  4. Plagiarism is wrong anytime, anywhere. What's worse: the web makes it SO EASY to attribute and link to sources!

    I hate to hear this story, Ken. In my days as a writer online, I had a lot of stuff lifted to Wikpedia which WAS eventually corrected. Wiki now has a system for footnoting that is highly encouraged. Sad when it's not recognized.

    What I found when writing about comics history, was that the cream rises to the top and really, true sources I think ARE recognized.

    If $$ is not to be gained from writing a thing, then I am so confused as to the motive of non-attribution.

    1. Mike, you've touched on two points that have also confounded me.

      The ability to link to another source on the Internet is easy. Easier than writing a footnote if that is too much for the writer.

      And as to what is gained by not attributing a source, that entirely mystifies me. My guess is that the plagiarist is engaging in self-aggrandizement just for the sake of massaging their ego. A false achievement gained at the price of theft.

  5. A similar event happened to me, where someone took my writings virtually word-for-word and submitted them to a well-known magazine publisher for inclusion in one of their publications without crediting me. After corresponding with the guilty party, I concluded that it all boiled down to a lack of respect towards me, as I was not a true "comics historian". As a result, I have lost the desire to share with others the results of what little research I have done over the last several years into one of the industry's lesser-known publishers.

    While there are obviously some people who swipe from others to inflate their own ego, I want to believe that there are some people out there are simply ignorant of their own actions, and they are not swiping from others for selfish reasons.

  6. Whatever their motivations, bchat, their actions are wrong.

    You put the effort into your research and should get recognition for that. It doesn't diminish the offending party if they acknowledge you as a source. If anything, it adds substance as it shows that they based their own work upon something other than just their own opinion.

    As I wrote in my above editorial, the Internet has encouraged such plagiarism because it makes theft so easy. But such ease doesn't excuse their actions. And it is hard to believe that many, if any, are ignorant of their thievery. They just hope that they are never found out.