Monday, November 23, 2009

Menciaed by Cracked

Did you ever read Cracked magazine? For those of you who don't remember, Cracked was kind of like MAD's less popular cousin. They didn't have Sergio Argonnes or Alfred E. Newman, but the stuff they printed was just as funny as MAD, sometimes even funnier. When I was a kid, I used to read both of them quite a bit. So when I found a web site called Cracked.com, I kind of assumed it was a continuation of the now-defunct Cracked print mag. Recent events have led me to wonder if I was wrong. Is it possible that these guys just picked up the Cracked name because "nobody was using it?" Because apparently they do that with articles.

Not long after discovering Cracked.com, I found out about their weekly Photoshop contest and eventually started submitting entries. I never won the $50 prize for best entry, but a couple of my submissions did make it into the top 20. So yay me. You entered the contests by posting your pictures to their forums, which (probably by design) led me to snoop around said forums to see if anything interesting was going on there. One of the things I discovered while doing this was that Cracked had a super-secret writers' forum where you could pitch ideas and, if the editors liked them, write for the mag (and even get paid). Since the site (at least in mid-2008, before they really started adding blogs) mainly did list-type articles full of dick and fart jokes and since (as QAGS fans already know) I'm a big fan of fine dick and fart humor, I asked for permission to join the super-duper-secret writers' forums.

Once I had access to the forums, I took the shotgun approach and posted several pitches for potential articles. One of these was called "X Singers Who Need Something New To Sing About." Over the next week or two the article made it to the "Stuff We're Considering," got some suggestions, and went through a rewrite or two. I can't confirm the exact sequence, but I did post a couple of the drafts to LiveJournal (locked so only select friends could see them). You can read those (now unlocked) here and here. In any case, after posting a couple revisions with absolutely no feedback, I assumed the article was dead.

Around that time, I moved across the state, got a new job, and started writing on a bunch of other sites and even occasionally for a print magazine. Since Cracked.com hadn't even given me a "thanks but no thanks" after multiple revisions, I kind of drifted away from checking in or submitting things to their writers' forums. I still read the site regularly, often passed on links to their articles, and even introduced a few new people to the site. I just didn't want to write for them (or more precisely, deal with their rather vague editorial process) any more.

Sunday evening, I opened up my Google Reader to see what kind of entertainment the internet had to offer me. Imagine my surprise when I saw this article in the Cracked.com feed.

"Well cool," I thought. "Somebody must have picked up my idea and turned it into an article that the editorial board actually liked."

At this point, I was assuming that the new and not-written-by-me version of the article would have a different structure, or at least be about different bands (one of the few pieces of feedback I got initially was that the topics I'd chosen were too common). At first, this seemed likely. The author was using my original format, but the first two musicians weren't even on my list. The next three were. Not only that, they were on there for the same reasons. And, while the author (Benjamin Dobson, who I will call "Dobby" if I need to refer to him again)had written new words, some of the ideas (and 2/3 of the chosen sample songs) matched my submissions rather closely. The choice of "Jamaica Mistaica" as the sample Buffett song really made it obvious that Dobby was familiar with my previous writings on the topic. There are a lot of songs that are much more obvious examples of the "It's awesome to be Jimmy" genre. I'd just chosen that one because it's a personal favorite.

Since I liked cracked.com, I didn't want to jump to conclusions. "I haven't been to their forums in a while," I thought. "Maybe this guy asked to take over the article and, when I didn't respond, the editorial board gave him the ok." Granted, a personal message (which would have sent me an email notification) to the effect of "somebody else wants to write (and make 50 bucks off of) the article you submitted a year and a half ago" would have been nice, but if that's what went down, I would have probably been cool with it. When I went to the forum, I discovered that I no longer have access to the super-secret writers' forum, so I guess I'll never know the actual sequence of events that led to the article's publication.

Since Dobby didn't steal any of my text exactly, I don't think what he did really counts as plagiarism. Also, most forum terms have a clause that basically says "we own anything you post here," so even if he'd swiped my words directly, it might technically be legal. Still, there's a difference between "legal" and "not douchy" and since over half of the basic ideas he writes about were from my original article, I feel a little bit like Bill Hicks at a Denis Leary show.

I like Cracked.com, and would like to keep reading it, but I'm not sure if I'll be able to without wondering "did the guy whose name is at the top of the article actually come up with this?" Maybe I can just stick to Seanbaby's blog and Hate By Numbers, since I'm reasonably sure those guys come up with their own material. I don't know. The one bit of solace I can take from the whole affair is that, based on the comments section (admittedly not the most erudite forum of discussion, but still), many of Cracked's readers absolutely hated Dobby's article. So at least I got that.
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