Not long ago, I saw a reference on Twitter to a clever illustration of either Wolverine or two Batmans looking at each other. I clicked through to a Tumblr page, where someone had reblogged it from someone else on Tumblr, who had reblogged it from someone else, and so on.

I wanted to send a quick note of appreciation to the artist, and have a look at some of her or his other work. But there was no credit to the person who created it. It was only after a dive into Google that I found the original artist: the brilliant Olly Moss. (Really – you have to see the illustration.) Others have also identified him, and credit is gradually rippling outward. (Interestingly, his blog is on Tumblr, too.)

But much of that huge initial viral wave passed him by — as it so often does on Tumblr, Posterous and their less-well-known short-form-blogging cousins. Those platforms are designed to make it quick and easy to share media… and even easier to reblog it.

Spend enough time on Tumblr, though, and you’ll notice something is often missing from the photos, cartoons, videos and Photoshopped gags that populate so many of its pages: attribution.

Giving credit to the creator of a piece of work you use is a pretty basic standard of behaviour — and it’s become more tangibly important with the rise of the free economy. Even if we aren’t getting paid when people republish something we’ve made, we can hope for compensation through attribution.

For creators, the reward for creating and sharing is often no longer monetary, at least not directly. Instead, it comes in the form of:

  • reputation
  • instrumental advantage (for instance, if inbound links to content you’ve created help boost your traffic)
  • attention
  • a sense of achievement through reaching and affecting people.

All of those rely at least partly on attribution. If nobody knows you’re the one who shot that amazing photograph that just went OMFG viral, then your reputation doesn’t budge a bit. If there’s no link to your site from that infographic you created that’s just been reblogged a few thousand times, you won’t see any traffic – and won’t build an audience.

This has happened to me a few times with my cartoons. At first, I’d thought it had to be a deliberate thing because of the number of steps I thought had to be involved : save image to hard drive, fire up image editor, crop image to remove credit, save image, and finally post. One incident in particular stands out because the image had (for me) a huge response: nearly 600 reposts and Likes.

But once I looked at the profile of the user who’d first posted it, I started to reconsider my presumption of guilt. Beth Tucker has social media smarts and an engaging online voice. And when I contacted her, my assumption turned out to in fact be wrong. She was mortified to have dropped the credit; she’d used a screen-capturing utility to snag the cartoon, and had inadvertently cropped out the credit at the top. (And she’d acted in good faith, too, maintaining the link to its original home on ReadWriteWeb.) She apologized and quickly replaced the image with a complete version.

It was one of the most gracious exchanges I’ve had online. (And I’m now following her on Twitter.)

The experience suggests to me that there’s hope. For the most part, people aren’t failing to give credit out of malice or dishonesty. Some just can’t be bothered; with others, it’s an accident; and for many others, the information isn’t available because they’re discovering the content second-, third- or hundredth-hand, and the attribution fell off far up that reposting chain.

The fact that so many of the posts on their platforms don’t include creator credit suggests that Tumblr and co. have some work to do to make it both easier to apply attribution, and clearer that they expect it of their users. Kearn makes a strong case for that in a blog post about hunting down the original source for my cartoon:

Someone posts something cool on a site that usually accredits things well and it leads back to Tumblr, where there’s no clear attribution of where it came from, so people give up and just say it was from there…. Most of the time you can’t even search for where it originally came from (even with tineye, which is awesome), because it has been so heavily reposted on Tumblr without notes on where it came from, that the search engines just show you a hundred Tumblr links.

Those of us creating sharable content can make attribution easier, too:

  • If you’re feeling geeky, adding a few lines of code to your template can generate a snippet that people can copy and paste into a blog post to repost content from your site. I’ve done that on Noise to Signal.
  • Tell your visitors clearly how you’d like your content credited, and what permissions you’re offering. (Your Creative Commons notice isn’t a bad place to do that.) For instance, you can say “Feel free to repost my content non-commercially. Please link back to the page you found it on and credit it to (your name here).”
  • If you put Twitter’s Tweet Button on your site, you attach your Twitter user name to attach to a piece of content when people share it. Here’s how to add yours.
  • Embed attribution in your content. My URL is part of every cartoon image I post. Yes, it can be lopped off by mistake – but that doesn’t happen very often.
  • Remember my experience: you don’t want to mistake a fan for a thief. If you find someone has reposted something of yours without crediting you, don’t go in with phasers blazing. Instead, give them the benefit of the doubt and start with a politely-phrased request. (Unless you work for the recording industry, in which case that attitude seems to be a condition of employment.) Of course, if they’re claiming they created it, all bets are off. Cry havoc, and all that. (Depending on how grievous the situation, you may want to start thinking about – sigh – legal options.)

And for anyone reposting content, make sure you attribute it. (If you’re already crediting everything you post, then bless you.) If you’re reposting it from a site that failed to credit the author, and the author’s identity isn’t readily apparent, then take the few minutes needed to track it down:

  • TinEye is an image search engine that can help you find where a particular image has been posted elsewhere. It’s great for tracking down an original source… and handy for checking for uses of your own work, too.
  • Google web, image, video and blog search let you unleash the full force of Google’s sophisticated search queries. There’s an art to choosing search keywords: you want them to be peculiar enough to the content in question to filter out irrelevant results, but general enough that it’s likely the content creator used them. A little persistence will go a long way.
  • Popular YouTube videos are often re-uploaded by users who had nothing to do with creating them. So before you share that great YouTube find, run a search on some obvious keywords — and sort by the upload date. That way, you can go back in time to the original posting. (Sorting by date is great for blog searches, too.)

And link to the source. You’re doing a service to your visitors who like that one piece of content, making it easier for them to go find others like it. It’s also a nice thing to do for the author, who gets a little traffic, attention and search engine juice. And it makes it likelier that the author can find you, and possibly strike up a conversation. (I’ve met some of the nicest people because they’ve shared my stuff.)

I’ll give the last word to Beth, who says “as more content consumers become curators, I think this issue is going to become more pervasive.” Agreed.

Now, your turn. Do you make a point of attributing when you share content? And how can content creators — and platforms like Tumblr — make that easier?