THE South African blogging platform which stripped the Creative Commons license from its users material and rebranded itself without bothering to consult or engage on the issue of copyright, has finally closed. The Mail and Guardian announced the closure of their blogging platform Amagama in a letter posted to remaining online users yesterday. This comes after a three year storm over the launch of the platform in which work published under the Creative Commons was hijacked from users accounts at the M&G Blogmark and moved without consultation.
Admittedly Amagama/Blogmark made history. In exchange for a free account (and ample writing space), users parted with their creativity, prose, opinion and banter. The M&G Blogmark had attracted some of South Africa’s liveliest and fresh online writing talent and even the likes of seasoned comedian and playwrite Ian Fraser. Unfortunately what had first appeared to be a welcoming, homespun and open space, where one could express ones deeper fears and anxieties, safe from editorial censorship, quickly turned nasty. M&G staff, unable to resist, began to interfere in the blogging process.
Ian Fraser was kicked off the platform for making weird comments about the President. A book review of A Secret Burden, which I had written to demonstrate the problem of embedded journalism during the Border War was deleted without my permission and access to the rest of my material was suddenly blocked without notice
I complained to M&G editor Ferial Hafagee and there was an exchange of emails on the subject. It eventually came down to my characterisation of a military journalist who cannot be named, as a spy working for people who cannot be mentioned. Hafagee refused to concede that this person was an embedded journalist and that the review had any merit. The seized material was not returned and is still in the M&G possession.
Then without any warning, the M&G blogmark rebranded itself and moved over to the new Amagama platform causing a flurry of debate and users to leave in droves. The rest of my work, still under lock and key, was simply repackaged and press-ganged into service without any consultation, no compensation nor recognition of the Creative Commons license scheme under which the original work had been released, and so a new regime came into force.
Henceforth, the M&G would act like our online masters. Alienating a creative work from its original license is probably the greatest sin one can commit in today’s electronic age. Nevertheless handshakes were given all round, deals with Media24 were signed. Spin-doctors began congratulating themselves. All work posted online would now be exclusively under South Africa’s Copyright Act, a real chestnut of a law which still gives publishers exclusive use over any material submitted for publication.
After some six months in which I was effectively banned, I yet again requested the material to be returned. Vince Maher, the brains behind the Amagama launch made a number of promises. None of which were kept. I stood by and watched as my material ratcheted up clicks which were aggregated by the site and sold to its advertisers. We had all been nothing more than Guinea Pigs for an experiment in corporate capitalism. With still no sign of any resolution to the dispute I got legal opinion from an attorney at Mallenicks. It came down to “my rights under the Creative Commons vs their rights under the Terms and Conditions,” which as it turned out, like so many EULAs, could be changed and reinterpreted at any time.
Still feeling aggrieved by the lack of respect shown towards the subject matter, I consulted with a number of the key minds in electronic activism around the world, including Gwen Hinze of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Eventually my course was decided after I wrote to Joichi Ito of Creative Commons explaining my situation. Ito had been a long-time associate with a diverse range of net-heads whom I had grown to love and know through my association with the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (WELL) in San Francisco.*
The most cost-effective remedy for enforcement of the Creative Commons in South Africa, short of sending ninjas and spambots, appeared to be simply to issue a take-down notice, which could be made by filling in the correct forms and issuing a request via ISPA. The result was the ceremonious take-down of my own material. After having had my book review seized and presumably deleted, then being banned and having my remaining work hijacked for some 12-months, I was now compelling management to delete all the remaining material (which had been initially blocked) in a very public manner. Despite the negative publicity, the company continues to act as if nothing has happened.
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