As you may remember, I encouraged you to donate
to the IndieGoGo campaign
to raise money to fund a year's salary for Bill Day, a political cartoonist who provided significant guidance to me when I was a young cartoonist.
Recently, Bill has become embroiled in a controversy involving his re-purposing cartoons to sell through PoliticalCartoons.com. Case in point:
There's another issue in which Bill allegedly swiped a piece of digitial art from a DeviantArt page and used it outright in one of his cartoons. When the violation was pointed out -- according to some sources -- the cartoon was re-drawn, replacing the swiped image with an inked drawing.
So, of course, I've received more than a couple questions -- through emails and Twitter -- asking me to comment. And I guess since I encouraged you guys to donate to this crowdsourcing campaign, perhaps I owe you my thoughts. And here they are:
In 2009, Bill Day fell the victim of now-ubiquitous newsroom cutbacks, losing his job as editorial cartoonist of the Memphis Commercial Appeal.
. Since then, he's been trying to continue his editorial-cartooning career, offering his work through PoliticalCartoons.com and CagleCartoons.com, a Web site run by fellow-editorial-cartoonist, Daryl Cagle.
To make ends meet, he's had to take day jobs. I've read about two -- one at a bicycle shop and another at UPS. And, reading between the lines of the IndieGogo campaign, he's facing foreclosure on his mortgage.
To put in in plain terms, the man is on the balls of his ass, living a life I'm very familiar with -- working a full-time job and juggling family commitments with a struggling career in cartooning. I've lived those days, when six hours was a full-nights sleep. And make no mistake, I'm still working hard to make this career work. Day job or no day job, this is not an easy life.
Then he became the first (to the best of my knowledge) crowd-sourced political cartoonist in history.*
Stop for a second, here. He made history
. In a time in which the very art of editorial cartooning is dying the same death as newspaper publishing, he proved that editorial cartoonists could
survive outside of newspapers. That's heavy stuff.
So... 'round about the same time that he cleared his fund-raising goal (a whopping $35,000, people) -- the allegations of self-plagiarism surfaced.
Let's separate plagiarism from "self-plagiarism."
The swiping of someone else's art from DeviantArt? That was a really bad choice. And it's indefensible. I think he should make that right with the owner of the image.
So, let's boil this down to what it is. Bill Day re-purposed one of his own
drawings to offer it to newspapers (and readers of his work on CagleCartoons.com) as a new thought on a topical issue. In the example above, his argument about the racist overtones in the immigration debate are repurposed to being as appropriate in Arizona as they are in Alabama.
From Ted Rall's blog
, we get the reaction from a newspaper editor:
Fortunately, there is hope in the form of some editors. One editor responded to the Bill Day story with comments that probably won’t surprise most readers but would come as a shock to the numerous American editorial cartoonists who really don’t think that plagiarism or self-plagiarism is a big deal: “As an editor who subscribes to Mr. Day’s syndicated work, we had always assumed that we were paying for new content. However, it appears that not only does Mr. Day steal the work of others, but has made a career out of using the same cartoon over and over again. My publisher is currently reevaluating the value of this syndicate and the work they provide to our chain of papers.”
In that same post, Mr. Rall names about a half-dozen other editorial cartoonists who have been caught in the act of re-purposing their own work ("self-plagiarism"). According to him, CagleCartoons hires "hacks" and offers their work at lower rates, instead of "[hiring] those of us who actually take this profession seriously."
And that's where we hit the real issue
behind the outrage.
So, let's put our cards on the table
There's no more dangerous combination in America than righteous indignation plus an Internet connection.
I've read posts from people who angrily want the money they donated to Day's fund-raiser returned to them. Mr. Rall is outraged that newspapers are using Cagle Cartoons, which undercuts his business with cheaper cartoons made by people who are (in his estimation) lower-quality cartoonists. And this self-plagiarism is offered as proof. Likewise, this unnamed
newspaper editor is expressing his outrage that a cartoon that he may or may not have bought
may have been repurposed from the same cartoonist's earlier work. "We we had always assumed that we were paying for new content."
But it seems to me that there's a disconnect here. We're expecting editorial cartoonists to live by a very high standard. We're asking folks like Bill Day to work a full-time job to make ends meet and then produce four or five different, original pieces of art every week. And in return for that, the newspaper editor may or may not
choose to purchase some of those cartoons.
Because... see... there's a reason that newspaper editor is searching CagleCartoons for his newspaper's editorial cartoons. First off, it's cheaper than hiring their own editorial cartoonist. And moreover, it's cheaper than buying a subscription from a larger syndicate such as Universal Press Syndicate. CagleCartoons are offered cafeteria-style. You only pay for what you want.
So is it any surprise that, much like an actual cafeteria, corners sometimes get cut to make this system work?
Is it any surprise that Bill came home exhausted from a full-day's work as a physical laborer and met that night's deadline by taking an older drawing and making it fit a new current event?
Because Ted Rall is absolutely right to demand a higher standard. And he is right to demand a higher level of pay for maintaining that higher standard.
And newspaper editors should know that they are getting that higher standard -- as long as they're willing to pay for it.
But if they're not willing to pay for it -- if they value those standards in words but not in actual dollars -- they shouldn't be so quick to assume the coveted role of victims in all of this.
If there truly is value in maintaining a high standard of ethics among editorial cartoonists -- and I'll argue strongly that there is -- then the people paying for that work should be willing to pay the higher price tag that goes along with those higher standards.
More to the point, let me put it this way. Let's say CagleCartoons started offering their cartoons at two different tiers. One would be their Standard Tier. Business as usual. And then they'd offer a Premium Tier. The cartoons are all priced much higher, but there would be a money-back guarantee that every cartoon in the offering was an original piece of art. No "self-plagiarism" (and certainly no plagiarism in the traditional sense).
Which tier would sell more cartoons?
I agree that editorial cartoonists should hold a higher standard, but I think it's unfair to ask them to maintain those standards on a poverty-level income. And until we support them at that standard, can we really shake our fists in righteous indignation when the simple truths of everyday life lead to a corner cut here and there?
If this were really
about the high value we place on editorial cartoonists' work ethics, we wouldn't be demanding our money back
from this fund-raiser... we'd be doubling
*Note: Matt Bors tweeted the following: "I raised $35k on Kickstarter and am a full time editorial cartoonists because of it." The Bors Kickstarter was to fund a book, "Like Begins at Incorporation." While it may be true that the extra funds generated by this fund-raiser allowed Mr. Bors the ability to devote his full time to his craft, Day's campaign was still the first to solicit funds specifically earmarked to an annual salary. So, who was the first? You decide. Both deserve credit for being among the vanguard.