Life Long Reads

Six Figure Checks? Seriously?

Looks like Matthew Inman, the guy behind one of my favorite webcomic sites, The Oatmeal, has started whining about content aggregators. You know, those sites that compulsively gobble whatever they can find on the internet and spew it back with all kinds of advertising. I used to run into these all the time when googling for computer problems, although Google recently attempted to address that issue. Basically, Matthew is mad that similar sites (specifically FunnyJunk) are copying images from his site (and other sites) and posting them uncredited but surrounded by ads. Unlike him, I’m not convinced these sites are worth getting upset over.

First of all, he erroneously throws out the term “stealing.” I know in situations like this it kind of feels like stealing, but equating copying and theft really needs to stop. These people do not prevent Matthew from displaying the images on his own site, they merely copy his images (and are rude about it by erasing all the original attribution). Nothing is missing, nothing has been stolen.

Matthew then goes on to suggest that these companies are cashing “six-figure advertising checks.” I have to say I’m rather skeptical of this claim. I know I’ve been using Adblock for so long, I’ve nearly forgotten that there are ads on the internet. When I do see ads the only time I click on them is by accident. I would venture to say that a lot of the people reading webcomics are like me, which doesn’t make for a very lucrative ad audience. While there are certainly aggregation-type sites that add value to content by facilitating discussion or commentary (Slashdot and Reddit come to mind), these content farm sites like FunnyJunk don’t offer much. Thus, how much traffic are they actually getting? Are there really that many people going directly to these “content farms” that the ads are that lucrative? I’m not convinced.

Finally, we need to evaluate what kind of damage these sites are doing to Matthew’s site, if any. Anybody who is a fan of the content they find on these sites is likely to seek out the original source (if they haven’t already), driving traffic away from the aggregator. I doubt many people actually believe that FunnyJunk is the author of The Oatmeal’s comics, despite their lack of attribution. They’re not preventing Matthew from selling his merchandise or operating his site. They’re not helping visitors find the source of the content or providing any additional value in their aggregation. They’re probably not even making that much money from ads.

What, exactly, is the problem? Why does Matthew even care that this is going on? It seems to me that FunnyJunk’s rote duplication of The Oatmeal comics has little effect on Matthew’s own business, and if anything, serves to increase his audience as new potential fans look for the original source. Matthew would be better off taking a lesson from Mike Masnick and TechDirt: Just ignore these sites. They might make a little money from ads, but who cares? They’re not the ones with a bestseller on Amazon.