Why we need a code of ethics for the Web

What do you do when you've stolen content from someone else's website? If you're FunnyJunk.com, you sue them for defamation when they call you a thief

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.

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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.

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