Spring 2018 | CUNY Graduate Center | IDS 70100: Introduction to Queer Studies


Privilege, Plagiarism and Profits (Francesca)

Some of you may already be familiar with the controversy over the Genderbread Person infographic which was created by some trans and non-binary activists and used and rebranded by a cis, white, heterosexual guy from Texas. I only knew this general story, but I decided to revisit it to see what role, if any, Creative Commons licensing, or any kind of copyright, played in this case. In case anyone isn’t familiar, here is the version of the Genderbread that became famous: http://itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2015/03/the-genderbread-person-v3/. It’s from a site run by Sam Killerman, a guy from Texas who writes about privilege, oppression and intersectionality (without being a member of any of the communities he writes about- not here to discuss that issue, but just an important fact in the larger case.)

Earlier versions of the Gingerbread model used to explain sex, gender, and sexual orientation, were floating around the microblogging site Tumblr, and on Reddit, but the Killerman version failed to cite these versions, or their creators. The first version of his infographic had a small asterisk which mentioned having seen some similar but flawed versions online before creating his own version, but subsequent versions contained a watermark for his website, and later a QR code linking directly to his cite as a way to claim sole intellectual property. For all these reasons, he was accused of appropriating, stealing and plagiarizing the work of trans people and being a bad ally. What makes people especially angry is that his book, The Social Justice Advocate’s Handbook: A Guide to Gender, uses the Genderbread picture, meaning that the content he stole is now being used for profit. Some explained that if Killerman had given Creative Commons attribution and didn’t profit from the infographic, it would have been acceptable.

But the point of my post isn’t so much about this, but the role of copyright. Killerman’s site is completely “uncopyrighted.” See here for his reflection about this decision: http://itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2013/11/uncopyright/. In the FAQ section, he addresses the issue of why not getting a Creative Commons license, and articulates that, “a Creative Commons license isn’t actually much different than a copyright — it’s just an attempt to make the language and law of copyright more easily understandable to lay people.” He also shares his love for Wikipedia. I only bring this up because This American Life covered the story of a photographer whose monkey selfies (actually selfies of celebes crested macaques) were being used by Wikipedia without the artist’s permission. (Side note: it’s a fascinating case all about ownership and intellectual property. PETA sued the artist, claiming that the intellectual property belonged to the crested macaque who pressed the button that took the photograph, and challenged whether non-human animals can be protected under copyright law. They lost… but the artist is still suing Wikipedia, and giving a percentage of his proceeds to the land that houses the macaques as part of a settlement, and because he seemed to genuinely want to do that anyway.)

The loose connection between Killerman and Wikipedia involving intellectual property and public domain raised some questions for me.

Should we consider the benefits of no copyright vs. Creative Commons license?

Do platforms like Wikipedia, and people like Killerman, justify piracy in the name of free, open and accessible?

How do power dynamics, privilege and marginality play out in plagiarism, and being awarded for stealing the intellectual property of others?

If anyone wants to read more about the case for identifying what happened as plagiarism, see here: https://storify.com/cisnormativity/the-genderbread-plagiarist

For an alternative to the Genderbread infographic, see here: http://www.transstudent.org/gender

1 Comment

  1. Francesca,

    Thank you so much for bringing this issue back up as we struggle with how to make the work we use and our own work open and accessible. Currently, a colleague and I are grappling with a similar issue regarding training curricula and materials developed as part of one of our projects. The fear is real also around piracy and mistrust when attempting to be transparent and socially-responsible with the work that we do.

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