Transcript: Copyright & The Cartoonist

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Interview with Kirsty Melville, President and Publisher, Andrews McMeel Universal

for podcast release Tuesday, July 24, 2012

KENNEALLY: Families have long enjoyed posting favorite cartoons to their refrigerator door, but what if the refrigerator door becomes a virtual space, the Internet? What are the challenges that presents to cartoonists and the publishers who put their work into the public?

Joining me for Beyond the Book today at the Yale Publishing Course is Kirsty Melville, president of the book division of Andrews McMeel Publishing. Kirsty, welcome to Beyond the Book.

MELVILLE: Thank you for having me.

KENNEALLY: It’s a pleasure to have you join us because you’ve just given a presentation here at the Yale Publishing Course, a piece of which caught my attention. That was a story – a really almost breaking news story – about a cartoonist, Matthew Inman, who publishes under the URL The Oatmeal and various other ways, and he came across some Internet piracy that put him into a bit of a legal thicket. Can you tell us about it?

MELVILLE: Yes. He posted on his blog a humorous commentary about Funnyjunk, an aggregator of humorous content, which essentially expressed his concerns about not being acknowledged or linked to on Funnyjunk. Funnyjunk didn’t like his commentary and so they sued him, asking for damages for about $20,000.

So Matthew Inman, in his inimitable style, wrote another blog post and said, I will raise the money for charity that I should be sued for damages. And so ensued a back and forth between them, and because Matthew Inman has so many followers and so many people are interested in his witty and acerbic commentary, donated money, including us as his publisher, to help raise awareness about piracy and the fact that while he’s perfectly comfortable having his content available on the Funnyjunk site, he was concerned that it wasn’t attributed or linked to, and he, in essence, didn’t think that was fair.

So as a consequence, a big debate ensued and many back and forths. In the end, he raised over $200,000 and the case is finally being withdrawn. But it was very interesting to me because I thought that it showed how a content provider or a cartoonist could actually create a debate and create discussion around one of the big issues of today, which of course is piracy.

KENNEALLY: Let’s talk about that issue. At Copyright Clearance Center, we like to point out that copyright isn’t only about monetizing your work. There are other ways. You can profit from it by reputation or you can advance yourself in a variety of ways career-wise and otherwise. In this particular case, Matthew wasn’t really concerned about the money. He just wanted the attribution.

And I noticed on his own website there’s a nice, fairly mild notice, Please don’t steal. So this isn’t kind of aggressive overreaching by a big copyright owner. This is somebody who just wants, as you put it, what’s fair.

MELVILLE: That’s right. I think in the world of the Internet where so much is free and available, I think the etiquette is at least to acknowledge the origination of the content, and that’s really all he was trying to do is to say, hey, you’re presenting this as if it’s yours, and actually it’s not. I created it and I’d like to be acknowledged.

KENNEALLY: From your perspective at Andrews McMeel Publishing, you’re putting a lot of work online and you sometimes work with cartoonists who prefer not to see their work online. Talk about that very hard line for you between when is it right to put stuff online, when may it not be so, and what are some lessons that you’ve learned from working online?

MELVILLE: Well, obviously, we’re working with our authors and creators and if they don’t want us to make their work available in e-book form or digital form, then we’re not going to do it.

KENNEALLY: You have a very famous example of that. One of your cartoonists just prefers not to be in e-books at all.

MELVILLE: Yes. Gary Larson would choose not to be in e-book form, and we respect that desire of his. And other cartoonists have concerns about the quality of the rendering of their work, too, so it’s both a quality issue and then it’s a concern that people are going to copy their work and they won’t be remunerated appropriately.

But what we have discovered or think a lot about is that perhaps it would be better to make it available in e-book form where you can be paid as opposed to not doing that, because it’s so easy to copy and essentially scan and make content available for free and not pay at all.

In fact, Matthew Inman has a very good cartoon about this on his website that demonstrates why people think it’s good. They want to pay for it, but then if it’s not available to be paid for, then they will go and steal it. So that’s the concern.

KENNEALLY: Right. Let’s pull back just a bit and tell the audience briefly about Andrews McMeel Publishing, because you’re a very special publishing company, special in part because of location. You’re in Kansas City, so not Manhattan. But you’re also a publishing company that came out of a very famous syndicate, and you’ve already mentioned a few famous names that are associated with Andrews McMeel. But tell us about some of the other cartoonists and illustrators that you work with and what kind of book publishing you actually do.

MELVILLE: Andrews McMeel is part of Andrews McMeel Universal that includes Universal Uclick as well as Andrews McMeel Publishing, and we also distribute and work with United Features Syndicate. So we are, on the Universal Uclick side, the biggest aggregator of syndicated cartoon content in the world. So we’re working with everyone from Dilbert to Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury to Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes, Pearls Before Swine, Darby Conley. All the leading cartoonists we represent in one form or another, and we think long and hard about how best to represent their work digitally on our website gocomics as well as in book form and calendars and greeting cards.

We have a long history, over 40 years. The company was founded by John McMeel and Jim Andrews who bear the name of the company, and it’s still privately held, and we care greatly about how our creators’ work is distributed and represented in the world.

KENNEALLY: It’s very difficult, I’m sure, for someone to see his or her work put out free for the public without even being asked for it, but yet you say that there may be a way to sort of accept that, because if you don’t make it available, people are going to steal it. There’s a kind of vicious cycle going on. Talk about that just a little bit and maybe how you – imagine I’m a cartoonist, the Calvin and Hobbes creator, for example. Try helping me through understanding why making something available online might be better in the long run.

MELVILLE: I think if, for example, if we make books available, then when people go to search as they do regularly on Google, instead of finding the BitTorrent site that’s stolen the content, they can see that it’s available for sale through Amazon or Barnes and Noble or Andrews McMeel, and therefore, we make it easier for them to find it.

I think that that’s part of what we’re trying to do when we make things available for sale is say, here’s content. We want you to buy it, we want to make it available to you, and we want to make it easy, because I think it’s the not finding it, because people are very good at searching. It’s the not finding it that drives the stealing.

So therefore, it’s this paradox, if you will, that when you can’t find it, you steal it as opposed to when it’s available, you will buy it.

KENNEALLY: It’s a fascinating point and I think a really worthwhile one. I want to ask you finally, Kirsty Melville, president at the book division of Andrews McMeel Publishing, about the lessons learned from your location. You spoke at your presentation about being on the periphery. Kansas City might or might not be a periphery depending on your definition, but it’s given you a vantage point to look at publishing, to look at the reading audience, and maybe to tell some of us who are mostly out here on the northeast corridor something that’s worthwhile to hear.

MELVILLE: I think being in the heartland, as it’s called – although I’m originally from Australia and have been on the periphery one way or another most of my life – it’s given us a nimbleness and we’re more agile, and we’re not lumbered, if you will, with this sort of legacy and heritage of traditional publishing, which means that we can be more flexible and we see things from a slightly different perspective because we’re not tradition-bound, if you will.

So we obviously work closely with partners on the East Coast and West Coast, and I’m always looking at the coasts to see what’s happening. But I think there’s a lot going on in the heartland in that we are able to bring an unexpected approach and a freedom because we’re not tied to traditions that you might find on either coast.

KENNEALLY: Thank you for that insight Kirsty Melville, who is president of the book division of Andrews McMeel Publishing. We appreciate you joining us today on Beyond the Book.

MELVILLE: Thank you very much for including me.

KENNEALLY: And for all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, this is Christopher Kenneally wishing you a great day.

END OF PODCAST