Five Things: April 11, 2024

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WEBTOON Originals contract draws criticism from creators | Beat Staff

Without seeing the actual contract that the original poster is referring to, it’s hard to judge how much of the terms in the WEBTOONS Originals contract are negotiable, how long all of the terms apply, or whether the situation described by the original poster is inaccurate. Each creator’s agreement with WEBTOON might be slightly different, depending how the creator, their agent and/or lawyer might have settled terms of the agreement before signing.

I generally hate industry coverage that restates commentary taken from social media because it’s usually clickbait with minimal context, but this one takes a swing at being good journalism and is an interesting, if mostly unsurprising read. WEBTOON is simultaneously an industry darling and manga-adjacent curiosity in publishing, sometimes heralded as the next big thing with vague but impressive revenue and readership estimates, if it’s reported on at all.

This contract dustup sparked by a Reddit post isn’t unique to WEBTOON, though. Every comics publisher, platform, or service that prominently mentions “IP” anywhere in their About copy is fundamentally a predator. For most of them, comics are an inexpensive means to a multimedia end, and comics creators are some of the easiest prey in the creative community. (It’s partly why Marvel and DC continue to find new creators to work on their corporate IP, despite several generations of veteran creators with public stories of exploitation, and why random startups often launch with claims of transmedia glory and unrealistically expansive publishing plans.)

The main takeaway here is a classic one: always have an agent or lawyer review the contract, no matter who’s offering it. Publishers continue to get away with bad contracts because they prey on inexperienced creators who don’t have agents. Worse, most of them are regularly supported by incredulous media coverage that never questions contracts until someone goes public with their gripes, or the company goes bankrupt, while exclusive whisper networks only protect the already well-connected.


Show Me the Money: Making a Business Case for Accessibility in Small and Large Publishing Organisations | Simon Mellins

This is the whole reason for the EAA and similar accessibility legislation. If there was a really robust commercial argument from sheer sales, legislation wouldn’t even be necessary – competition would resolve the problem. This is manifestly not the case and may be a part of why many publishers have been hesitant to make significant investments into accessibility. It’s never ‘too late’, but to start really unlocking those resources now, we have to make a subtle change to our language.

Accessibility is one of those topics I don’t know nearly enough about and am always looking for useful insights to expand my understanding. It’s a big deal in libraries and, much to my professional frustration, a huge obstacle for comics, for which I don’t foresee a near-future that includes the visually impaired. Not traditional comics primarily intended for print, at least. I’m surprised that none of the digitally native platforms like WEBTOON appear to offer any kind of accessibility options, though, since the born-digital creation process should be more amenable to reasonable solutions.

Mellins has some great insights on why accessibility should be top of mind for publishers (not the least of which is looming legislation requiring it), including his first and arguably most important point: it shouldn’t be about increasing sales, which is usually the only business case business executives and shareholders care about.


Texas is replacing thousands of human exam graders with AI | Jess Weatherbed

AI essay-scoring engines are nothing new. A 2019 report from Motherboard found that they were being used in at least 21 states to varying degrees of success, though TEA seems determined to avoid the same reputation. Small print on TEA’s slideshow also stresses that its new scoring engine is a closed system that’s inherently different from AI, in that “AI is a computer using progressive learning algorithms to adapt, allowing the data to do the programming and essentially teaching itself.”

“AI” is in a weird place right now; everything, everywhere, all at once, but also a third rail to be cautiously approached, if at all. This example in Texas is interesting because automating the grading of standardized tests would seem to be an easy use case for “AI,” even for open-ended questions — unless those questions are written in ways to really force creative and critical thinking, in which case it seems like another example where biased training data could lead to unfair grades, and standardized tests already have long-standing problems with bias.

Education has long been a profitable testing ground for new technologies, so we’re going to see a lot of bad “AI” initiatives over the next couple of years before more reasonable minds prevail. Unfortunately, the underlying thread in almost every “AI” story these days is how it’s being used to replace people to save money, but there’s rarely any mention of the various costs involved in implementing and maintaining that replacement, or that some of its biggest advocates have admitted they’ve yet to find profitable angles on it (beyond consulting).


Could the AI Industry Implode? | Thad McIlroy

Since I started pumping for AI and publishing a year or so ago I’ve had a constant concern that all of this would collapse upon itself. Just the hallucination problem is an ongoing nightmare: how can you rely on an “intelligence” that occasionally, unexpectedly, unpredictably, makes stuff up? I’ve assumed, like many others, that as a technology problem the technologists will find a solution.

Post-Twitter (and Substack), I avoid linking to hate-reads anymore, and as much as possible, I avoid reading them at all myself. There’s no upside to giving bad ideas oxygen or attention, nor helping charlatans reach more eyeballs, and the “AI is inevitable” crowd is legion. I’m not sure if McIlroy is a true believer or just an opportunist — his “AI” column for Publishers Weekly and the event he put on with them last year suggest the latter — so I was surprised to see this post on his own blog where he basically admits he’s been shilling for something he’s not actually convinced is a viable idea.

My default response to anyone pushing “AI” is to ask them for specific use cases, and they rarely have an answer, never mind a good one. Vague references to “productivity,” “word processing,” and “desktop publishing” are indicators that person can be ignored, and you should always dig into their resume to see what they’re selling and/or who they’re working with.

Baldur Bjarnason sums it up perfectly, again: “These are unreliable tools made by organisations we absolutely should not trust, coming out of a field (AI) with a long history of over-promising, snake oil, and even outright fraud. The burden of proof is on them, not us.”


Vectrex reborn: How a chance encounter gave new life to a dead console | Tim Stevens

The Vectrex design was unique, a video game console wholly integrated into a portrait-oriented CRT. This was at a time when most households had just a single television set. Playing Atari back then meant fighting with your siblings and parents about who had control of the TV because missing an episode of The A-Team had real consequences.

I had a Vectrex as a kid, my second video game console after my Atari 2600, and loved it. It was unique, but more importantly, the games were fun to play. Several years ago, during the Wii era, I found one on eBay (I think) and bought it along with a few games, and it was still surprisingly fun to play. Sadly, I sold it a couple of years later and periodically regret it. (I still have an Atari 2600, although it sits on a shelf because hooking it up is a hassle I haven’t been inspired to tackle in a while.)

Stevens’ long read is a nostalgic walk down memory lane, but also a fascinating story of obsession, archives, and revivals. Kind of.

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