A letdown: This month, the internet didn’t fix itself.
The breakdown: Soon after street photographer Brandon Stanton, founder of the “photographic census” blog Humans of New York, turned down a $15,000 offer from DKNY to purchase rights to 300 of his photos, he learned from a fan’s snapshot that the company had gone ahead and used his photos for their marketing campaign anyway. There they were, plastered behind mannequins in a Bangkok store window—cut up for reformatting, blurred by reflections, but still unmistakably his.
The fallout: Stanton posted the snapshot he’d received on his Tumblr and Facebook pages, along with a message asking fans to “please SHARE this post if you think that DKNY should donate $100,000 on my behalf to the YMCA in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.” On Facebook alone—to say nothing of reblogs and retweets—nearly 40,000 people participated in the campaign. Within hours, DKNY had capitulated, claiming an internal error and promising to donate $25,000—not as much as Stanton had hoped, but enough, he wrote, to “be happy that this one had a happy ending.”
Pause there, and it is a happy ending. What happened to Stanton was an attack on intellectual property only possible in the Internet era, the kind of incident accompanied by hysterical music in antipiracy ads. But the reaction of HONY’s fans provided the kind of solution that’s only possible through social media. The range and speed at which the grievance spread, and the resulting public pressure on DKNY, is a notable success for one-click activism. For all the perils facing artists in the virtual world, it seems that world is armed with the means to fight back.
And yet, the very sharing that enabled this activism is a double-edged sword. You have to claim at least partial ownership over an item in order to share it, and when the shared thing, as on Facebook, appears as a piece of a virtual identity, you make it partly yours. Which isn’t, after all, so different from what DKNY did: absorbing photos they found inspiring into their own public image. In the real world, it seems clear that the company behaved badly. But take those photos off the physical wall and put them on a virtual one, and you haven’t got a crime or a scandal—you’ve got Pinterest.
So now that Stanton’s grievance has been spread over the blogosphere, you can’t really say his creative rights are restored. His photos have been parceled out in tweets and Tumblr notes to the diverse, diffuse group of people who spread the word, and now his work and even his indignation belong to them too. But if we can appropriate a position so easily, where is the line between sharing and stealing? If all HONY fans claim a stake in a virtual idea chest, who’s to say DKNY did anything wrong?
It’s a disconcerting thought that theft may cease to have meaning in the virtual world, that the things we “share”—our ideas, our selves—belong to anybody who chooses to claim them. That’s social connection taken to the extreme, and it feels like a little too far. But from DKNY’s first download to the fans’ passionate response, the recent HONY drama has illustrated just that. Something scarier: Maybe the internet is permanently broken.