The Amusing Ourselves to Death comic: Neil Postman’s ‘Orwell versus Huxley’
Long-time readers will remember a comic I posted in May 2009 called Amusing Ourselves to Death. It was an adaptation of the foreword to Neil Postman‘s Amusing Ourselves to Death, a book originally published in 1985. The passage compares the futuristic visions of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It suggests that the greater danger to society is not the iron fist of government from Orwell’s vision, but the attention-sapping distractions of technology depicted by Huxley.
This comic was respectfully removed from my website in March 2012 due to the wishes of the Neil Postman’s estate. After 2.5 years in the wild, I decided it was time to formally clarify my position with the copyright holder regarding their feelings on the piece. I proactively contacted them, and received notification that they would prefer the comic was removed. Respecting their wishes, I removed the comic without hesitation.
What follows are some reflections on a comic which has been removed from the internet. A piece of my back catlogue which I am walking away from.
A selection of drawings (minus Postman’s text) are interspersed throughout this post.
Amusing Ourselves to Death: a cover version
Amusing Ourselves to Death was an anomaly of my back catalogue. The only one not fully written and drawn by me. A ‘cover version’ of sorts.
The comic was also a milestone of my back catalogue. One of the ones that made me pull up my socks. The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly I rose to the game of conveying the story through my artwork. The second factor was the reader response, which was quite unlike anything I had seen before. Word of mouth spread, and a lot of eyeballs were pointed my way.
After a relatively quiet few days on the web (albeit with a good response from regular readers), things soon went bananas. The comic reached the front page of reddit.com, and 31,500 readers accessed the comic within a 3 hour window. A victim of its own success, this spike in traffic choked the performance of other websites on its shared server (I had only paid for a ‘budget’ AU$30/year hosting account). The host pulled the plug on me.
Drawing Amusing Ourselves to Death: motivations
Let me step back and describe my original motivations behind the comic.
My intentions regarding Amusing Ourselves to Death were always honest. Hyped up after reading Neil Postman’s book in 2009, I intended to draw a ‘teaser’ comic which would compel readers to read Amusing Ourselves to Death in full. Judging by reader feedback, that is what happened. Many people contacted me saying that I had turned them onto Amusing Ourselves to Death and then liked what they read. The comic clearly referenced Postman’s book as the source of the text component of the piece. I did not sell the comics for money or profit from it.
Of course, motivations are one thing, and the law is another. I created the comic as a complete amateur, operating a non-profit website dedicated to sharing ideas with the world. As time passed, I found that creating comics became what I wanted to do professionally, and Amusing Ourselves to Death’s presence on my server became a grey area of uncertainty. I was moving towards a future with comics as a legitimate way for me to earn a living. Could I continue displaying Amusing Ourselves to Death on my website?
I fished around for opinions. Some people tried to reassure me “it falls under Fair Use, mate”. But the more I read into copyright law, the more uncertain I became. Was the comic transformative enough to be considered Fair Use? I had used less than 1 page of text from a 208 page book, but had I taken the ‘essence’ of the book?
It became clear that even if I was fully complying with the law, that would not be enough to prevent legal action being brought against me. I read with horror the Kind of Bloop case. Would the copyright holder of Amusing Ourselves to Death have the same reaction?
Asking the question
The answer became clear: to ask the copyright holder directly. A US Library of Congress search pointed me in their direction, and I emailed my request. Thankfully their simple response was to politely ask for the piece to be removed.
So the bite-sized comic about the dangers of our limited attention spans (ironic, eh?) is no more. The comic has been deleted from my website, and I feel good respecting the wishes of the copyright holders.
I still own the copyright to my drawings from the Amusing Ourselves to Death comic. Some of my favourites appear in this blog post. But I see no point in putting the wordless series of postcards online at recombinantrecords.net. It’s time to move on.
The question marks are gone. I now have a body of work which is 100% owned by me. And more are in the pipeline right now.
For those of you that missed the comic the first time around, why not go straight to the source. Neil Postman’s book changed my view of the world, and caused me to alter many of my attitudes and habits. Buy Amusing Ourselves to Death new/used (aff), or track it down from your local library.