Elise Andrew’s extraordinarily popular Facebook page “I F*cking Love Science” (IFLS) is the subject of a scathing Scientific American blog post by Alex Wild. Andrew’s page is no different from many blogs and Facebook pages. It contains photos, cartoons and other news items gleaned from the Internet. It does differ in scope. “I F*cking Love Science” has gained nearly 5 million fans.
Wild reports that IFLS has morphed from a hobby into a business. Tee shirts are sold, and a television show is in the works. What’s most disturbing from Wild’s analysis of IFLS is that he found that 59 percent of the 100 most recent images appearing on IFLS were not even credited, much less licensed. It has all helped Andrew’s to create a brand of her own, derived in no small measure from the creative work of others. (Since the publication of Wild’s article it now appears that photo credits are listed for every entry).
That really raises a question incumbent to all blogs. What’s the line between commentary or “Fair Use” and the improper use of content? For example, in this column, I have created a blog posting based on original work published by Alex Wild. The attribution and links are, I believe, enough to make it all square. It’s obvious that I didn’t do the work on IFLS on my own. I’m also going beyond the scope of Wild’s original posting in making my comments.
Just the same, the work of many blogs is derived from the original research and media of others. That’s, in fact, the very nature of the popular concept of “curation.” Curators in the blogosphere are taking the things that they consider to be the best and/or most interesting and creating a “mash up.” In its entirety the “mash up” is a new media product, but it’s work one generation removed from the work of others. This is by no means a new or novel issue. Several years back, DJ’s dealt with the issue of sampling. They were taking snippets of the works of others to create new content – a musical mash up. In the end, it was determined that they were liable for the licensing fees.
A difference between musical sampling and blogging is that the music at issue is often highly profitable. Most blogs are not, and this is what’s extremely relevant about IFLS. It is or is poised to be a successful commercial venture. That’s why it’s attracting attention. But it’s not appropriate or legal for any media, not matter how successful, to coopt the work of other publications or other media. Success, as defined by viewership, has very little to do with it.
It is a complicated issue and I believe that in most cases it’s not black and white. It’s a matter of degree, even when non-commercial interests are involved. If you present the gist or a summary of an original piece together with appropriate attribution and links, you’re probably OK. One could argue that you’re even promoting the work of the original content producer. However, that’s not a license to just attribute a work and then reprint it in its entirety. Success (and money) does attract attention, and it will be interesting to see what develops with “I F*cking Love Science” in the weeks and months ahead.