‘We Committed Copyright Infringement and Want to Be Sued by Disney’
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Good morning readers, Fortune tech writer David Z. Morris here filling in for Adam. In the spirit of Casual Friday, I have a story about t-shirts (it’s also about A.I., intellectual property theft, and the inherent vulnerabilities of open platforms).
The story begins on Dec. 3, when an artist going by @Hannahdouken on Twitter posted an image of hand-drawn text reading, “This site sells STOLEN Artwork, do NOT buy from them!” And asked followers to reply that they wanted the image on a shirt:
They were testing a theory. For years, artists posting their work online have found the art turned into t-shirts and other merch without permission or compensation. The theory was that this was being done by automated bots that combed Twitter for images with such enthusiastic replies, and then automatically created merch on sites such as Gearbubble, copthistee, and Teeshirtpublic. These sites take images from just about anywhere, apparently without much screening, and put them on commercial products.
Sure enough, automated bots picked up @Hannahdouken’s image and placed it on t-shirts . . . and the next day, they did the same with a far more subversive one:
Hans-Jürgen Eisenbeis, who goes by @Nirbion on Twitter, says @Hannahdouken’s test was clever, but didn’t have any serious downside for the art thieves. So he made an image with more dramatic text. “I thought about something that would make them care and cut their profit, even for a tiny bit.”
His theory: See if he could bait the bots into copyright infringement, and just maybe, a pricey lawsuit. And who’s the scariest, most determined enforcer (and extender) of copyright on the planet? “Of course, I thought of Disney first,” says Eisenbeis.
His version of the stunt succeeded spectacularly. First, the bots came out of the woodwork, drawn by hundreds of tweets from people saying they wanted the image on a t-shirt. Then other artists repeated the trick with infringing images including Pikachu, Mario, and the Coca-Cola logo.
Which is how we ended up with t-shirts like these:
Eisenbeis says many sites quickly removed t-shirts based on his “Not Licensed Mickey Mouse” image—finally paying attention to artists’ rights. “So, I think this is a very effective frightening measure. How long this holds, is another question.”
It’s a hilarious stunt, but there’s a much larger point here. Digital platforms such as Instagram and Giphy attract customers or traffic by letting unsavory users—including bots, trolls, and pedophiles—do nearly anything they want. T-shirt printers just happened to get a hard lesson about the many risks of that model.
Correction 12/6/2019: This story has been updated to reflect that the original “Stolen art” drawing from Twitter user @Hannahdouken was promoted on a t-shirt.
David Z. Morris
This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman.
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FOOD FOR THOUGHT
They're teaching artificial intelligence programs to perform so many human tasks. How about painting and sculpture? Some say the machines can't make true art, but Arthur I. Miller disagrees. The emeritus professor of history and the philosophy of science at University College London argues that the works of computers are offering a unique perspective on the world, just as human artists do, as he explains in an interview with Nautilus.
The machine sees the world in a different way than we see the world. Just like an artist does. That gives you an inkling that machines will have a different physiology. In time, they will evolve emotions. Just from scanning the web now, they could imitate our emotions. They’ll say, “Oh, thirst, that’s cool. I think I’ll be thirsty,” and they can convince you they’re thirsty. “Love, that sounds cool too, I just had this nice discussion with a machine down the street, and it seems like love.” They’ll hone their notion of love by reading novels, and soon they will evolve emotions and consciousness. That will be the point of artificial general intelligence. Then it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to artificial superintelligence, where they go beyond us in intelligence, emotions, and consciousness.
FOR YOUR WEEKEND READING PLEASURE
A few long reads that I came across this week:
Ponzi Schemes, Private Yachts, and a Missing $250 Million in Crypto: the Strange Tale of Quadriga (Vanity Fair)
When Canadian blockchain whiz Gerald Cotten died unexpectedly last year, hundreds of millions of dollars in investor funds vanished into the crypto ether. But when the banks, the law, and the forces of Reddit tried to track down the cash, it turned out the young mogul may not have been who he purported to be.
When a Disappointment Helped Lead to a Nobel Prize (New York Times)
The winners of this year’s Nobel in economics did pioneering field experiments that sometimes didn’t work as expected.
Inside Larry Page’s Turbulent Kitty Hawk: Returned Deposits, Battery Fires And A Boeing Shakeup (Forbes)
The technology is one thing, but 80% of the effort is in productizing and building an aircraft that can be certified.
How I Get By: A Week in the Life of a McDonald’s Cashier (Vice)
Cierra Brown is trying to do all she can on her own, but it rarely feels like she’s doing enough.
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BEFORE YOU GO
The Sundance Film Festival is almost always chock full of interesting movies that I put on my "must see" list. The lineup for next year's festival is out and I'm enticed once again. Actress Elizabeth Moss always picks great roles and she's starring as author Shirley Jackson in Shirley. There's also the Gloria Steinem biopic The Glorias. And don't sleep on the Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana. Get your popcorn ready!
On Twitter: @ampressman