What is the line between social media branding and brand or copyright infringement?

When bestselling author Roz Usheroff contacted me regarding the unauthorized use of her name as a reference in which there were no corresponding links to her site or work, she asked if “people can just use your name to get others to their site?”

In my response, I indicated that besides name dropping, people have also used a writer’s articles and posts under an aggregation model in which some sell access to your written work for another publication. I discovered this a couple years back when I did a search and came across articles I had written for a magazine that ended up on a pay to access site.

In the case of the poaching of articles, my lawyers informed me that while I could go after them the costs in time and money to pursue it must be carefully weighed.

I then suggested to Roz that the best thing to do is regular searches of her name on the web.

This way I reasoned she could at least stay on top of how her name was being used in the virtual world of social media, and take action on the most egregious utilization of her brand including corresponding works.

Just as a side note I concluded, corporations actually pay good money for software that scans the Internet daily in an effort to be proactive relative to any negative or unfair comments. So the practice of vigilance would seem warranted.

Based on the above response, Roz suggested that I should write an article regarding this question as she thought that my experience and creative use of prose would perhaps generate awareness for the unauthorized use of one’s brand without the reciprocal cross reference.

This exchange took place in mid-October.

Just recently, the issue surfaced again, but this time involving Gary Larson of The Far Side cartoon fame involving a letter he had sent to the owner of a web site titled “Gary Larson Cartoon of the Week.” I think that you will find it interesting, especially as it relates to Roz’s question:

Gary Larson is the creator of The Far Side Cartoons. The comics include all kinds of animals, such as dogs (i.e. what dogs hear), cats, cows, sheep and worms. Some time ago, the Far Side Cartoon Master himself, Gary Larson, sent me this letter by email:


I’m walking a fine line here.

On the one hand, I confess to finding it quite flattering that some of my fans have created web sites displaying and / or distributing my work on the Internet. And, on the other, I’m struggling to find the words that convincingly but sensitively persuade these Far Side enthusiasts to “cease and desist” before they have to read these words from some lawyer.

What impact this unauthorized use has had (and is having) in tangible terms is, naturally, of great concern to my publishers and therefore to me — but it’s not the focus of this letter. My effort here is to try and speak to the intangible impact, the emotional cost to me, personally, of seeing my work collected, digitized, and offered up in cyberspace beyond my control.

Years ago I was having lunch one day with the cartoonist Richard Guindon, and the subject came up how neither one of us ever solicited or accepted ideas from others. But, until Richard summed it up quite neatly, I never really understood my own aversions to doing this: ”It’s like having someone else write in your diary, he said. And how true that statement rang with me . In effect, we drew cartoons that we hoped would be entertaining or, at the very least, not boring; but regardless, they would always come from an intensely personal, and therefore original perspective.

To attempt to be “funny” is a very scary, risk-laden proposition. (Ask any stand-up comic who has ever “bombed” on stage.) But if there was ever an axiom to follow in this business, it would be this: be honest to yourself and — most important — respect your audience.

So, in a nutshell (probably an unfortunate choice of words for me), I only ask that this respect be returned, and the way for anyone to do that is to please, please refrain from putting The Far Side out on the Internet. These cartoons are my “children,” of sorts, and like a parent, I’m concerned about where they go at night without telling me. And, seeing them at someone’s web site is like getting the call at 2:00 a.m. that goes, “Uh, Dad, you’re not going to like this much, but guess where I am.”

I hope my explanation helps you to understand the importance this has for me, personally, and why I’m making this request.

Please send my “kids” home. I’ll be eternally grateful.

Most respectfully,
Gary Larson

In order to avoid a legal dispute, I followed the cease and desist. Therefore, these Gary Larson comics are now off-line. I respect the copyright of Gary Larson and respect his wishes to put these Far Side pictures off-line. Nevertheless, I hope that there still are a few places left in the Internet where you can get in touch with this excellent kind of humour. Thanks to all the people who take the time to write me. And have fun with the Farside cartoons of Gary Larson.

Despite Roz’s assertion that my written eloquence would serve to advance the issues and concerns writers have with the unauthorized use of their work, I could not help but feel that Larsen’s letter created the needed point of context that best illustrated the thought process behind brand infringement.

What are your thoughts?

2 Responses to “What is the line between social media branding and brand or copyright infringement?”
  1. Dianne Orwig says:

    Gary’s analogy to his work being his children is brilliant. It truly does paint the picture of what it feels like when you see your work being used in a way you were unaware. At first, the compliment is nice, but that feeling does not outweigh the uneasy question of, “what if my work lands in the hands of someone who doesn’t care about me or my work?” This is an important issue and this article covers it beautifully. Thank you!


  2. nornerator says:

    This issue causes conflict within me.

    On the one hand artists should be paid, and respected for their work.

    On the other hand the artist cannot “own” the ideas they create, regardless of whether or not the law says they have ownership over their ideas.

    Once an idea has been shared, it is no longer yours. It exists in the minds of others. These other people may twist and warp your ideas and transform them into new ideas, or modified ideas.

    Once your idea has lodged itself in other peoples minds, it is no longer yours, it is humanities. You can be respected as the originator but you cannot own what is inside my mind, nor what is inside anybody elses mind.

    We should be allowed to share the images and experiences in our own minds with each other without being fined legally.

    I had loved the farside comics, but after reading Gary Larsons letter it became clear to me that he doesn’t really understand art.

    Sure people need to eat and live, and they need money for this, but if you are an artist, you should be creating things with the intent that the art you create will inspire others, or send some sort of message.

    In any event, real art is free, and the goal of real artists is free global distribution.

    I would imagine almost everybody who has seen a print, or an online copy of the Mona Lisa did not pay to view it.

    Yet the law would tell us that britney spears newest single is more valuable than the Mona Lisa.

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