by Zachary Clemente
Last week, musician and producer Thomas Wesley Pentz (AKA Diplo) teased his upcoming collaboration with Missy Elliot on Snapchat, a video-sending service that’s being used as a new method of digital promotion among musicians. The video played a snippet of the track over a popular animated illustration by Rebecca Mock, a celebrated artist who has worked with The New York Times, The Walrus magazine, Nautilus online publication, and many more. Upon calling out Pentz on twitter for neither requesting permission to use her work or giving her credit, Mock was lambasted by Pentz and his followers. Much of the response Mock received is considered harassment, some of which is sexual in nature. He later uploaded the video to instagram, including a credit to her. The public side of the situation lasted about 2 days, resulting in a number of deleted tweets, a swell of write-ups, an apology of sorts, and potential legal action. Please be aware, the below contains potentially triggering verbal abuse.
.@diplo has shared one of my .gifs as background art for his music w/out asking me. my work isn't your clip art dude. don't sample my gif.
— Rebecca Mock (@rebeccamock) February 11, 2015
How many times have you heard someone attempt to describe the internet? For me, it typically involves poor metaphors accompanied by wild gesticulation around my head – it’s a vast semi-connected mess of stuff that relates to other stuff, but not necessarily in a way that we see or care about. It has a constant and amorphous give and take of action and reaction nested so far up, down, and around that conventional structures such as copyright law are brutally difficult to apply. There’s plenty of argument as to why that lack of structure can be a useful thing, but I bring it up because it means we have to operate under our own rules built out of even older structures, such as morals and good faith. These rules aren’t written anywhere nor could they be as I can’t think of a place other than Google where literally everyone goes, so they propagate, much like videos of felines, virally; an evolutionary ethos if you will.
Where I’m going with this is even though the way the letter of the law, especially when it comes to copyrighted material, doesn’t easily shake out now that someone’s creation can be a collection of pixels which is technically “reproduced” every time it’s viewed on another screen – there are easily recognizable values to adhere to in the use and application of this material. This is something Pentz should have been aware of and therefore, disregarded by choice.
What we get are a lot of slip-ups; someone will post something without credit and people will correct them. They’ll apologize then edit, credit, or pay and we’ll move on feeling, ideally, more knowledgable and satisfied with the overall experience. Unfortunately, this isn’t a common thing as one of the many, perhaps not well-exercised, behaviors that the internet enables is the speed with which we will share/retweet/reblog something. As an example, consider the number of times you’ve seen the first two panels of KC Green’s “On Fire” strip from his comic Gunshow without credit; it’s probably a lot. Community-based (read = not creator-based) aggregator platforms such as imgur, reddit, 9gag, and in the case of Pentz, Wifflegif, make it extraordinarily easy to view the action of sharing an animated gif or similar content as harmless fun. Nine times out of ten, I’m right there with you, but we have to acknowledge that we, as consumers of media, often take for granted the time and effort put into creating something and the fact that the little “share” button has become the preeminent way we show support.
Now, is this a bad thing? No, of course not – it’s a tool. But this tool isn’t a static object, it’s a means of communication that has foundational effects on how what is communicated is perceived, discussed, and framed. Sharing a book or a research paper is widely immune to this because you’re handling a source material that, by law, should be properly credited – all t’s crossed and i’s dotted. However, when a blog post (such as this one) is shared on twitter or facebook, there’s no guarantee that every embedded image is credited, and each subsequent sharer is less and less likely to ensure the inclusion of that credit. Instead of turtles, it’s the possibility of a passive application of the nonchalant disregard of creator ownership all the way down. Is it sometimes hard to tell how to approach this? Sure – but exercising a bit of caution can’t hurt.
Alright, where am I going with this, really?
Pentz should have known better is where this is going. For someone whose twitter feed is rife with easily digestible memes: images, gifs, hashtags used as inside jokes shared with millions, he is more than capable of knowing when something, like an image of a less-than-content cat with white text, is a product of the share-and-share-alike internet culture or when something is a labor of love and needs to be treated as such. As an experiment, I used Google’s image search, which allows you to make a query based on an uploaded image file, such as Mock’s “The Aftershocks”, embedded above. Here was my result:
Almost like magic, right? Just for the naysayers out there: I created a new profile on my computer to ensure there was no associated search data or cookies present and renamed the file to gif.gif instead of a uniquely generated file name from tumblr. I chose to not edit the metadata of the image assuming that the uploader at Wifflegif did the same. The search completed in half a second, pulling up Mock’s name, blog, and portfolio website as the top hits. I posit that this process was so easy that even a savvy producer of digital music working on a computer 24/7 could do it, but I’ve been wrong before. This was Pentz’s first error, and easily the most excusable as there would still be a way to make amends afterwards.
Unfortunately Pentz’s subsequent responses to Mock’s tweet calling him out and those of her supporters ruined any chance of recompense; some choice examples are featured below.
To me there’s a singular, and often under-discussed, place that all of these responses are coming from: Pentz’s feelings of entitlement. They come in readily customizable colors and sizes for all applications and can become quite pervasive if left unchecked; but the primary one here is that of being male.
Not only were Pentz’s responses abusive and flippant, they were wrapped in that soft nougat of everyday misogyny to make that made-to-serve blend we know as sexual harassment. It starts with a grotesquely sexually-charged rehash of a “have her cake and eat it too” strike aimed at Mock, moves to the emotionally abusive and gendered attack on Mock’s collaborator Hope Larson with some targeted misuse of a rather politically-feverish hashtag, slips back into cut and dry sexual harassment, and finishes with a brazen apathy for the effect Mock and her supports will have on his life complete with a touch of his, now patently gross, misuse of politically charged hashtags. Was that exhausting to read? Just try to imagine how it must have been for Mock. I doubt that the gendered form in which this harassment was conducted would have occurred if Mock and Larson were male; Pentz would’ve had to make do with attacks that were less sexual nature.
Clearly Pentz is of the “in for a penny, in for a pound” school of thought as it’s not only the comments directed at Mock that can be attributed to his entitlement.
Here’s where Pentz’s disconnect really hits home for me: he genuinely thinks what he has said and did wasn’t wrong and likely still doesn’t; we’ll get into his apology later. He exposed her art to his large number of followers, that’s a good thing right? Eh – yes and no. Sure, she may ultimately get more work out of this debacle – but that wasn’t Pentz’s choice to make. He did not receive consent from Mock to utilize her work as a means of promoting his own. Yes, many people saw her animation; but inside the frame of his own promotion – undermining her work and agency as an artist. The disregard of this socially required and well-known form of consent is the most worrying aspect of this situation to me as it’s the genesis of all other actions Pentz has taken. Further proof of this is him linking her instagram account to the permanent upload of the offending video as a tepid means of offering credit; no consideration was taken into how she uses her account (accord to Mock – it’s more of a personal scrapbook) and has only opened up more avenues for Pentz’s irate fans to harass her and her friends. Pentz just doesn’t seem to give a damn about how this situation is negatively affecting peoples’ lives and probably never will. So why did he care now? Why did he even engage?
Because he can and no harm will come to him. Voilà, meet entitlement’s secret ruler: privilege.
While scrolling through his twitter feed as this unfolded, I saw many of his fans decrying Mock’s first tweet as unwarranted, stating that she should have contacted him privately to address the issue. Sure – that seems reasonable enough, except…how? In preparation for this post, I spent a good hour or so hunting far and wide for contact information that wasn’t his social media platforms and found nothing to work with. All I turned up were two email addresses associated with his record label, Mad Decent; I sent a request for a statement into that void and doubt that anything will come of it. I don’t know what they expect of Mock, but I doubt that there’s some kind of secret society of people who have more than 5K followers on twitter that exists exclusively so they can contact each other privately.
At the end of the day, what we have is a clashing of two different worlds: the comics world and the music industry where nothing is one-to-one. Mock is a freelance illustrator who has to handle her own day-to-day business whereas Pentz likely has a team of people working under him to manage his various projects; he has plenty of literal and figurative gates barring people from interacting with him in a way that he deems unfit. It’s hard to see this as a problem of any kind as both exist and work in a normal situation, in context to their respective fields. However, for this you simply need to take a look at their twitter followers to see that Pentz has been happily surrounded in an echo chamber of support; it’s impossible to meet an aggressor on the field when their side approximately outnumbers yours 260:1. He doesn’t know how good he has it and doesn’t care how awful he’s made it for Mock.
Now, the apology (also screencapped here in case it gets removed). I don’t know about you, but I really believe that he wrote it with earnest and thought his way through each and every bizarre use of incomplete ellipses…then promptly cast the whole thing aside as if nothing had happened. Befitting his previous behavior, he excuses himself by stating “I’m sorry thats my nature” and “I’m just a joking person and i don’t even take myself serious so how can i take you guys seriously.” Half-hearted at best, Pentz’s attempt to address Mock’s concerns only highlight the problem at play: he never got her permission to use her art and doesn’t see that as a bad thing. Even worse were the provided explanations for his terrible behavior, ending the note with “so maybe this is also a future apology to everyone on the internet who follows me”. We’re left with Pentz telling Mock that this situation is little more than a future anecdote to him; he can’t even complete an apology to her without undermining the validity of her experience.
There’s a lesson to be learned here, I like to believe. There’s an opportunity for us to do better and find common ground when a dispute like this crops up. In this case, Pentz could have contacted Mock privately to diffuse the problem and address her concerns – creator to creator. Hell, in the most ideal of situations, they may have decided to collaborate in the future, sharing a laugh over the amusing way their paths crossed. However, thanks to Pentz – this is not to be. I urge you to check out this post from game designer Joshua A.C. Newman who resolved a situation with another game creator, Matt Rivaldi, over two similarly named titles hitting Kickstarter around the same time in a way that benefited both parties. He makes it look easy, because it is.