Why We Need a Code of Ethics for the Web

In our "right-click Save Image As" world, no one's content is safe from theft. Just ask Matthew Inman, author of the immensely popular if occasionally not-safe-for-work Web comic, The Oatmeal.

Last June, Inman wrote a blog post complaining about how most of his website had been scraped and reposted on FunnyJunk.com, one of hundreds of sites aimed at 12-year-olds who spend all day posting "lolz" on the Webbernets instead of doing something more wholesome -- like shoplifting. He accused FunnyJunk of rampant copyright fraud and provided literally thousands of examples to prove his point.

This blog post initiated a war between Inman and FunnyJunk's horde of pre-adolescent malcontents. Inman's main complaint? Not that FunnyJunk reposted his content but that it stripped his name from his drawings and failed to link back to his site.

Fast-forward one year. A few days ago, Inman received a letter from FunnyJunk's attorney accusing him of defamation and demanding payment of $20,000. Yes, FunnyJunk was threatening to sue The Oatmeal. It's a little like a cat burglar suing you for calling the cops after he's broken into your home.

Inman did what he typically does in these kinds of situations: He reposted an annotated version of the letter filled with scathing commentary about FunnyJunk and its attorney, Charles Carreon. He also proposed his own payment plan: If his readers contributed the $20,000, he would take a photo of the money, send the picture on to FunnyJunk, then donate the funds to charity.

Full disclosure: I don't know Inman personally, but I am a huge fan of The Oatmeal. I think his The State of the Web comics are as insightful as any serious analyst's (and a lot more amusing). His animation about what's wrong with SOPA and PIPA (aka Oprah with Jesus on a Jet Ski in Outer Space) is flat-out hilarious, if also NSFW. And don't miss his post on why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived. The guy is kind of a genius.

Clearly I'm not alone in my appreciation of The Oatmeal. Inman hit his $20K donation mark in shortly over an hour. The current tally now stands at nearly $150,000. As InfoWorld's Ted Samson noted, it's a great example of the power of social media and how dangerous it is to go after someone with a dedicated online following -- especially those who don't need to ask their parents for an advance on their allowance so that they can kick in.

It's not easy for operators of one-person websites like The Oatmeal to protect their content from theft. It's also not easy for small sites like FunnyJunk that depend on juvenile delinquents for contributions to police all the content that gets posted. They don't have teams of copyright lawyers at the ready. But that's the price you pay for such a business model.

The solution? I think we need some kind of ethics certification program for the Web -- a way for sites to declare that they are good Netizens who adhere to a code of good conduct. That way, Web surfers can reward the sites that follow the rules and avoid those who don't.

Here are some basic commandments I'd like to see:

1. Thou shalt not copy without permission.
Some sites and services (like the Associated Press) copyright all their content and discourage sharing; others permit copying via a Creative Commons license, with certain caveats; and others just leave it up to your discretion. It's easy enough to figure out which is which.

2. If thou dost copy, thou must attribute the original author.
I can't tell you how much it burns me to find my stuff published on the Web with my byline stripped off. I totally get where Inman is coming from. If you're going to steal, at least acknowledge from whom you stole it.

3. Thou shalt whenever possible link to the original source.
There are tens of thousands of "news" sites on the Web that do no actual reporting and survive by rehashing what other folks have written. (You know who you are.) But every site, including this one, does rely on other people's reporting to some extent. If you base your story on someone else's, the polite thing to do is link to the original source so that they get the credit, as well as some of that traffic gravy.

Admittedly, finding the original source can sometimes be difficult, especially for stories that go viral (even Google News doesn't seem up to the task). But you should make a reasonable effort.

4. Thou shalt not pander or shamelessly promote.
There's an entire industry of people churning out copy and giving it away for free to websites in exchange for promoting their executives, websites, or products. You'd be surprised how many well-known "news" sites happily accept these pieces and publish them because they're a cheap and easy way to get traffic. If you do this, kittens will die. Trust me.

5. Thou shalt make it easy to contact the author of a story.
I hate reading posts written by guys named "admin." If you're going to publish online, use some kind of name (pseudo is fine) and give me a way to reach you, in case you've made a grievous error or I feel like sending you money. OK, I'm lying a little bit about the money part, but you get the general idea.

Finally, and this one is key:

6. Thou shalt not attempt to extort money from sites that complain when you break all of these rules with reckless abandon.
I think that one needs no further explanation.

Now all we need is a groovy logo to identify the good sites. Maybe someone can convince Inman to draw one.

What commandments would you like to see in a Web code of ethics? Post yours below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "Why we need a code of ethics for the Web," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

Subscribe to the Daily Downloads Newsletter

Comments