There is often something going on in the blogosphere about copyright and theft. In general my views on this are more moderate than some. I tend to think much of it is based on ignorance (however unforgivable that may be), and a good dose on the simple common practice of the adoption of new ideas. It hurts people, especially those who make their living from it, but it also seems to me inevitable.
Every now and then something really fires me up though. A direct and indisputable carbon copy rip off of something or a large business systematically stealing designs from small scale designers and crafters, a certain kind of flouting of copyright when they think they can get away with it. That shits me.
But yesterday I was whacked to find 2 blogs I read (here and here) have been pillaged for posts to create a new blog, and a fictional identity. This situation is not unique, I know it happens all the time and lots of people have stories to tell. I know it happens, and I know in writing our blogs and telling our stories we open ourselves up to this kind of theft.
So I've been thinking quite a bit about this incident and what has really hit me about it. Perhaps that there are photographs of someone's child that are being claimed as photos of someone else's child. That photos stolen from one blog still carry the watermark of the real owner. Perhaps that posts have been backdated (in some cases to dates before blogs were even around) but include links and references to things so much newer. Or that a number of posts have glowing comments that are similarly backdated and perhaps are as fictional as the posts. There is an element in all this that is completely deranged.
This is something quite beyond the theft of works or ideas, these are thefts of identity by someone whose thought process are neither familiar nor rational.
And I find this profoundly disturbing. Not just in terms of the impact on those from whom identity is stolen - although this in itself is disturbing enough. But that there seems to be an increasing number of people in our world for whom identity is seemingly absent, or whose identity is insufficient to sustain a life. That they must resort to finding a life somewhere else which they can inhabit.
To me this is quantifiably different from someone who sees something you made, or a picture you took and thinks that is so great, I want it, I'm going to copy it. It's even hugely different from the I wish I had thought of that, I'm going to pretend I did and then make money by pretending it's mine. While I know there's a sliding scale here because for creative people what they make is inextricably linked to who they are and so if you copy enough of what they have made or thought up you are stealing some part of them, but to skip right to the end of that scale and say this is me, these are my children, this is what I cooked, this is the colour I chose for my living room walls and my latest cardigan...well that's not about stealing your ideas, that's about trying to be you. Lock, stock and all smoking barrels.
How are we going to respond to this kind of thing?
My earlier comment about inevitability of copyright breach is not an acceptance - just because it can be expected to happen doesn't make it right. If people steal your stuff you should aim to get it back, and sanction the thief where ever you can. As a community as well as individuals it is important we set standards and communicate to each other our expectations. We should be continually examining ourselves and each other and asking what's right, what's fair and what needs to be acted against. Just because it is hard, or because a legal framework may not be the best route to address the problem doesn't mean we don't all have responsibilities to work through these problems.
When it comes to identity theft it seems to me our obligations are even greater. If we want to go on blogging ourselves, and protecting ourselves from blatant theft, we need to be the regulators of our community if other mechanisms fail. We need to post on our blogs, leave comments on offending blogs, offer support to those who have been stolen from and call account to the blog hosts and technological facilitators of the criminal activity.
And not just in an angry or accusatory way (though it can be hard to leave strong emotions out of this). We need to recognise that this is an ongoing problem, and increasingly systemic problem and we have to come up with ways to stop it happening and we're less likely to do that if all we have to say is that this is someone's fault, or one person or host or tool is to blame. What are all the pieces of this picture that allow a thief to slip in unnoticed? How can we have some checks and balances, how can we protect the community as a whole?
I'd also like to say I hope I am not alone in thinking that the perpetrators here might need something more from their communities if this is the only way they can deal with their problems. I mean, are these the problems you have when mental illnesses are not adequately treated? Are these crimes being committed by people who in a different time may be have been spotted and diverted away from these acts of harming others? I don't know, it just seems to me that pretending to be someone else and blogging about it is not really compatible with any kind of behaviour society generally sees as OK - I mean it's not legal, it's not ethical - but since we gave up stoning people to death for committing crimes we've held onto some idea that people are capable of rehabilitation and the first step on this path is understanding why they have done what they have done. A crime is a crime, but if you can't look to the underlying problem you can't stop recidivism.
I don't really know where that leaves me. I'm angry, and shocked and upset for friends whose worlds have been rocked. I along with many others have complained to Typepad in the hopes they will remove the offending blog and do what they can to prevent the blogger from repeating this kind of thing. But I am also feeling a sadness and uncertainty about what that blogger will do next. What will happen to the impulse that led them to do this when this blog is gone?