That’s a pretty big f**k up by the Corriere della Sera.
The Milan-based, leading Italian newspaper (a circulation of about 464,000 copies daily, with an estimated 3,1 million readers) has just printed a collection of cartoons originally posted on Facebook in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo. The instant book, unimaginatively titled “Je Suis Charlie” was sold together with the Corriere at a cover price 4,90 euros, with all the proceeds apparently destined for the families of the victims of the vicious attack. Problem is, nobody asked the authors permission for printing their work.
Some of the robbed authors are prominent names in the Italian comic book scene, such as Leo Ortolani, Manuele Fior and Roberto Recchioni. Their cartoons are massively shared on Facebook and Twitter, every day, and they love that. The slaughter at the French satyrical weekly has sent waves of shock through the entire Peninsula, and the homage they posted was impulsive and frank. Of course there was a right (and legal) way to share their work, and a wrong (illegal) way to do it.
The easiest legal way was just clicking the social media buttons. The wrong way was the Corriere’s. Probably too busy to send an e-mail request, the newspaper editors opted for stealing the cartoons and recycling them for a cheap, shabby booklet to brag about freedom of speech. They even managed to doctor a few pictures by removing the link or signature leading back to the original source. As soon as the cartoonists learned of the wrongdoing, they took to social media. Ortolani lamented, among other principles, the image Corriere printed was of the lowest quality – a snapshot of a drawing posted on Facebook. “I would have given them a better one, if only they asked”, he wrote. And while Recchioni asked for a printed apology, Fior called for a proof that all the book sales will be actually donated to Charlie Hebdo. The story quickly made the way on other popular websites as Wired or Linkiesta.
American law says that “the unauthorized reproduction or distribution of a copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by fines and federal imprisonment.” The best way the Corriere could have kept the copyright cops from knocking at its door was to always assume that any pre-existing work it’d like to use is copyrighted work. And it requires permission to use or copy, no matter if the goal is charity or profit.
Plus, keeping the Corriere’s tradition in mind, pure, simple bad faith shouldn’t be excluded. While most of the authors involved are clearly Left or far Left, the Corriere is a conservative voice of the Northern Italian upper class, notorious for first publishing the inflammatory islamophobic editorials of writer Oriana Fallaci after 9/11. In the wake of the Paris killings, columnist Piero Ostellino wrote a column denouncing the “Trojan horse” represented by immigration in Italy, with a specific reference to Muslim minorities: “We [the Western civilization] don’t have to rediscover our roots. They should reject theirs instead.”, he wrote. In a piece titled “The European 9/11”, Catholic historian Ernesto Galli Della Loggia defined Islam as a universe with rules “mostly incompatible” with the rest of the world.
True to the platitudinous nature of the pious bourgeoisie they represent, Corriere’s volume is subtitled “Pencils defending the freedom of the press”, but they refused to print drawings seen as “insulting” to Islam, Christianity or any religion whatsoever. A preposterous note published by the Corriere following the protests only added insult to injury: “Our judgment was that waiting for the formal authorization of the authors would have slowed down the entire operation considerably.” That’s why it comes as no surprise that Recchioni’s reaction was disgust:
“Maybe I wouldn’t have wanted to collaborate with your publishing house. Maybe, if I wanted to do charity, I would have written a check. Maybe I wouldn’t have wanted to be associated with other authors’s take on this issue. Maybe I wouldn’t have liked my work to be shown in such a bad manner, using low resolution files. Maybe I wouldn’t have wanted to see stuff I created in a specific context and platform used by you in a complete different context and platform. Maybe I wouldn’t have liked my work commercialized.”
In the US, stealing a cartoon off the internet to use in a Powerpoint presentation, website newsletter, let alone printed media, without permission is a punishable crime. In a serious newspaper a mistake of this kind may cost the book editor his job. Frankly, it would have been much cheaper for the Corriere to pay a modest permission fee to the people who created the work and own the copyright, then facing this predictable social media backlash. They should have seen it coming.