Letter to the Editor: How We Were Duped Into Celebrating SCP-173’s Image Removal

NEWS/OPINION —Or “Why are the SCP Wiki Staff dancing?”

Photo: Keisuke Yamamoto. Copyright Izumi Kato.

Dear Kotaku/Ian,

I greatly enjoyed your article. I was impressed with the fine work regarding our small corner of the internet. It was exceptionally factual. People in our own space don’t even get it that correct.

I go by Lack of Lepers. In my day job, I am a Certified Registered Nurse Practitioner for a heart transplant team. My heart however is in my hobby; writing SCPs, and writing about writing SCPs.

I am an ex-SCP Wiki author, ex-RPC Authority author, co-founder, CEO & journalist at Confic Magazine LLC, co-administrator & contributor to the Containment Fiction Wiki, and the busiest man in the space. Over the span of 4 years, I’ve written 43 SCP articles across 4 platforms, and co-authored 9 others. In the past year, I’ve written or co-written 13 articles on the Containment Fiction Wiki, 11 articles on Confic Magazine, and just shy of 209,000 words of critique and commentary on this personal containment fiction blog alone (that’s ~15 hours of reading). Lots of other commentary elsewhere.

Not that the credentials matter; all this to say that this subject is my passion. I hope you will take a moment to come down the rabbit hole a bit further with me.

The SCP Wiki literally owes all of its fame and success to this one image; Untitled 2004, which as you know came to be known illegally as SCP-173. The Wiki never would have gotten started or as popular without it.

I’ve thought hard in order to pack the problem regarding SCP-173’s image down into one sentence: the SCP Wiki Staff are unable to enforce a legal agreement over it.

The agreement was made in 2014 with the copyright holder of that image; 5 years and ~2000 articles after the SCP Wiki got started. No one has time to go into a thorough history of it (check here), but we can get people the gist of what happened like this:

Let’s say the SCP Wiki went into a restaurant that it couldn’t afford and ate all the food it liked. It also invited all its friends, and told them they could eat on their bill. After 5 hours of eating free food, the SCP Wiki came forward to the restaurant owner and admitted they had stolen the food and couldn’t pay for it. The owner was upset, but seeing that what’s done was done, and hoping to fashion a mutually beneficial deal for both parties (as opposed to just throwing the thief in jail), they agreed that the SCP Wiki would go to the back and wash all the dishes that they and their friends dirtied up. They would then wash dishes until the bill was payed for in labor.

And that has been going on for 8 years. 8 years of cleaning dishes. The SCP Wiki has been sending out cease & desist letters to merchants, producers, artists, programmers of NFTs, and other third-party participants who featured the image and likeness of SCP-173, all to uphold their end of this bargain.

All the while though, some merchants were still falling through the cracks and making some money off of SCP-173. This is inevitable. You’d have to be God to know of everyone who is selling something with SCP-173 on it at all times. So the deal was flawed and impossible to carry out from day one.

Not only this, but the SCP Wiki is very limited in what it technically could do. They typically would ask the third-party to take down the product or image with a sort of cease & desist notice. Most artists complied, because most weren’t malicious, they were just unaware. For artists who couldn’t be contacted, or who didn’t comply, the SCP Wiki Staff could petition whatever platform they were selling on, like eBay, Etsy, RedBubble, etc. That usually did the trick. A DMCA takedown request could be the next escalation up.

But theoretically, that was the most they could do. If someone with their own sales platform didn’t comply, or wanted to go to court over it, that was it. Is the SCP Wiki going to sue someone over SCP-173 use? No. So their enforcement actionably stops there.

That’s why SCP-173’s image was ultimately taken down; it was an idealist’s bargain from the get-go, did not compensate for the ethical gaffe, and it could never truly be enforced. This was ignored for the sake of the community for a long time, but the SCP Wiki Staff ended up taking the high road morally and just dropped the whole deal, knowing they couldn’t hold up their end of it.

Or did they? In truth, this is a very different story than what people were told by the SCP Wiki staff. It is worth it to investigate a bit further as to why, seemingly suddenly, the removal of such a meaningful cornerstone of the community received unanimous, and even gleeful support from the current-day SCP Wiki Staff. It’s one thing for someone out there to be confused as to why the image was removed, but it is even worse to believe one knows exactly why. Let’s look at the reasons given.

1. Legal Necessity

A tracing of the legal matter here is not straightforward, nor simple to understand. It is archetypal of the larger complexities surrounding copyright and the internet. It would seem that this potential for ambiguity made its way into the official statements, and numerous times. In the announcements to the Staff on the Staff-only page, and to the Wiki itself, the legal “obligation”, it is termed, is confusingly placed next to assertions that the removal is necessary (1, 2).

There is no legal necessity, even when applying the site-wide Creative Commons license. That license applies to the site’s content as a default — in the absence of any other claim. If you’ll look at the bottom of any page on the SCP Wiki, you see this statement that says “Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License”. This gives room for things being otherwise stated, and was the case for SCP-173’s image for 13 years.

When pressed about this a bit more, the captain of the licensing team at the SCP Wiki says the legal obligation is self-imposed. It is a personal preference of the current Staff to see all content on the SCP Wiki be Creative Commons compliant.

The only way the image removal would be legally necessary or obligatory is if the artist Izumi Kato demanded it, whether by injunction or lawsuit. We’ll recall it’s stated — quietly in some places, and loudly in others — that the original artist of SCP-173 hasn’t asked them to take it down, and hasn’t called them out or held them to a strict enforcement of the agreement.

The “legal obligation” then is better stated as a moral one; done because it is believed to be the right thing to do, not by any legal concern.

2. OK, A Legal Gray Area Then

Before the moral argument, there is a second legal one; a softer one. It’s not that there was a legal necessity per se, but there’s certainly a legal tension that was unnerving and foreboding; one that didn’t need to be tolerated or suffered through for any party involved. After all, the SCP Wiki despite doing a mostly great job in its enforcement over the past years, has technically been failing to uphold their end of the legal agreement with the creator for 8 years. I mean how long can that go on? “The SCP Wiki could be sued at any moment!” goes the worry.

The issue with this is that in order for that tension to be present, one has to assume that the original artist (Izumi Kato) is the sort of person who would sue the SCP Wiki. In fact, we see this talking point utilized in defense of the image removal and to suggest its urgency, by the same SCP Wiki representative who made the official statement.

We’ve already been shown very definitively that Izumi Kato is not a lawsuit-hungry person. If he was, first he would have done that 8 years ago, and certainly would be interested since 2019 when the SCP Wiki received over $160,000 in donations, now sitting in a coffer specifically for legal fees. And again, the artist doesn’t seem to be holding the SCP Wiki to a very strict enforcement of that deal. If someone is worried about him suddenly turning litigious now, why not at any point in the last 8 years? There has always been money to be had.

One can say, as the official statement does, that the SCP Wiki is getting bigger & bigger; and this is true, but hasn’t it always been? Couldn’t you also have said that 4 years ago? But aside from that, this is like saying the pile of dishes from the friends you promised you’d pay for is too formidable. Staff are saying that the SCP Wiki has gotten too big, and that they can no longer afford to repay Izumi Kato back for the theft they can thank for that growth.

Is this image removal starting to make less sense yet?

In the worst case scenario, if Izumi Kato did regard SCP Wiki’s failure to uphold their end of the deal, the bottom line — whether by a cease & desist letter, or by lawsuit — would be the removal of the SCP-173 image. Indeed, when initially making contact with Izumi Kato in 2014, we can see the staff then very concerned about the worst case scenario; that the image might have to be removed from the Wiki.

Paradoxically, that’s exactly what the modern-day SCP Wiki Staff just did, only voluntarily. This is like being afraid that the person over there might shoot you, so you decide to shoot yourself first, to remove the anxiety over its possibility. It’s rolling-over, belly-up on the part of those who should be fighting for the Wiki. The damage from Izumi Kato going worst-case-scenario on the SCP Wiki for failure to uphold their end of the bargain is the result that the Staff have decided to do themselves, and for the “benefit” of the community.

In order for this softer legal argument to be convincing, you have to imagine Izumi Kato as a malicious character. You have to assume that he is a boogeyman, hiding in the grass, waiting to strike at any moment, when he clearly is not. Furthermore, it’s not even clear what suing the SCP Wiki would look like; it’s a decentralized group of Creative Commons writers! Worst of all, we also have to assume Izumi Kato is not very bright in order to make this argument; who in their right mind would anticipate that a group of volunteer writers, non-professionals in legal matters too boot, to omnipotently and omnisciently enforce the terms of the agreement across the whole internet, for all time?

It’s almost as if the message of the agreement was not ominous or threatening, as the soft legal argument interprets, but more along the lines of: “The damage is done, clean up what you can; but the best you can is good enough.” Izumi Kato’s reluctance to police or monitor the deal supports this.

The soft legal argument casts Kato’s intent as retributive in payback for his intellectual property being stolen; a Sisyphean task that equates to a sort of torture. That’s a mischaracterization of one of the most important people to the community. It’s clear by the agreement itself in the first place that Kato is less interested in punitive retribution, but more in mutual benefit. (And Kato did benefit from the agreement. More on that in the next section.)

So there is no pressing or even non-pressing legal justification for taking down SCP-173’s image. To suggest as much is to invoke a sense of misplaced legal paranoia, and be led by it instead of the good of the community. Tellingly, and in contrast to a similarly tectonic community event one year prior that could see a large chunk of the site’s history removed, Staff elected to not put the decision to a community vote this time.

The community is not the Staff’s. It is the community’s. Yet this is the power struggle that typifies the recent history of the SCP Wiki. Instead of the community being given a chance to understand and speak to the matter, Staff made the decision for them, and then sold those whose input was carefully avoided using thin argumentation and confusing rhetoric meant to dual-appeal to those people’s senses of fear and fairness. That brings us to the last and most powerful argument in favor of removing SCP-173’s image…

2. The Moral Argument

The moral side of this situation says “To hell with the legal matters, we owe it to Izumi Kato and the original SCP-173 sculpture to release it back into the interpretive wild, so that it can be symbolically free. We were never in the right to take it, that was illegal, and we have been mooching off of it since. It’s time to cut the umbilical cord and do what right we can, better late than never.” In the moral argument, SCP-173’s image is treated like Willy the killer whale in Free Willy; now it can be free.

None of this is incorrect. This sounds exceptionally moral. I almost feel like an asshole even trying to break it down. But, if we do, we find that it is the least moral thing the SCP Wiki Staff could have done with their circumstances.

Remember that analogy with the dish washing? Well, what has happened is that because the task became difficult to impossible, the SCP Staff have ultimately given up. They have thrown their hands up in the air and decided to stop washing dishes; and have instead washed their hands of their end of the deal; of the responsibility to enforce the copyright for Izumi Kato.

This is highly immoral. That deal was the only thing making the theft more right. The SCP Wiki is keeping all the benefit of their free meal and excusing itself from doing the dirty work it created. It’s a sly way to argue, but one that ultimately says it shouldn’t have to share in the responsibility of the mess it made. It now will enjoy the abundant fruits of its intellectual theft, without any more dish washing.

In a strange act of self-assurance, many Staff members and community members are under the impression that the image removal helps Izumi Kato. However, given that the toothpaste was never going back into the tube, the legal agreement was mutually beneficial; the SCP Wiki got to work off their theft and enjoyed all the fame and popularity that came from the use of the image. Izumi Kato was benefited in that he had a dedicated legal team of internet-scourers who would enforce his copyright for him. How many pirated intellectual property holders can say that? And the SCP Wiki legal team did this a lot. In the first year of sending out such copyright violation notices, records show that SCP-173 is mentioned 60 times.

Buttressing this moral argument is a naive belief that removing the image, the internet at large will somehow forget that it is SCP-173, or come to not associate it with SCP-173 anymore. But this is internet history. Who’s going to tell Google, for example? The damage is already done, and while on the one hand, you could say better late than never; on the other, you can say it’s too little, too late. Copyright infringements will still continue just as they have been for the last 13 years, because the SCP Wiki declaring that the image is no longer SCP-173 won’t change as much as they hope or believe.

The only thing that is changed, however, is that Izumi Kato just got screwed.

With the removal of the SCP-173 image, Izumi Kato is left to defend himself from the resultant tsunami of inevitable and ongoing copyright infringements. This is something he is not equipped for, certainly in no thanks to his prolonged out-sourcing of the task to the SCP Wiki’s licensing team. Now, instead of a small cavalry of help, Kato is left to send notices and try to undo all the legal mess that the SCP Wiki created, all by himself. Or not. Either way, he is in a worse situation.

It’s like in our analogy; there is still a large pile of dishes, and the thief just gave up because the full belly from all the free food makes it too hard. Kato is now punished for having been robbed. (One might even be more worried of legal action from him now than before!) If this is Free Willy, then Willy just jumped out of a captive luxury and into piranha-infested waters.

We can see that the SCP Wiki Licensing Team captain says this is the case: they will phase out enforcing the image’s copyright terms. So now, all those unaware artists, merchants, producers, and NFT programmers won’t have anyone telling them better, educating them or correcting them when they illegally still use SCP-173 in their products.

This is the true moral crux of the decision; not the projected virtue that the SCP Wiki Staff can feel by ignoring it.

Conclusion

So who is this really benefiting?

It didn’t benefit the SCP Wiki community, because we just lost the most important and iconic image in its history. It didn’t benefit Izumi Kato, because now he lost what was his only repayment for the ongoing effects of the SCP Wiki’s intellectual theft of his work. It didn’t benefit the text of SCP-173, which looks a bit naked now. It didn’t benefit the artists who re-imagined SCP-173; their works are amazing and great, yes, but will never rise to the original, and ultimately, their role as far as Staff is concerned is PR cover-fire. The wider userbase is being used as a raft, floating blindly along an ocean of legal jargon and confusion, ruddered only by the Staff’s baleful rhetoric.

It only benefited the SCP Wiki Staff. That’s it. Now, they can sleep better at night, not having to worry about Izumi Kato as a lawsuit-hungry boogeyman, and they don’t have to devote resources and time to upholding what was previously the only way they could possibly repay him.

Not that most people would know this without paying close attention, but this is just the next move in a years-long trend of legal paranoia seen take hold of the SCP Wiki Staff. For example, in 2021, they called a link to an offsite company copyright infringement; that article has since been taken down by its author in protest. They are in talks to remove a decade old cross-over canon out of fear of being sued by major money-occupied corporations like Disney. A fanfic article that featured Star Trek and other copyrighted characters was recently forced to be modified after the licensing team members declared it an existential emergency, even though Paramount pictures at least has publicly and explicitly OK’d fanfiction as long as it’s author isn’t making a profit (he isn’t). This list goes on and on.

We see on closer examination a SCP Wiki Staff more afraid of Izumi Kato’s hypothetical legal threat than they are thankful or willing to uphold the mutual agreement they were burdened and sentenced to carry as payment for their success. They have convinced themselves this is moral and virtuous. They are more spooked than they are interested in continually defending the image so the community could keep it. They are more worried than they are honored by the graciousness extended by Kato. All the energy gained from the initial theft just isn’t enough to keep up the task of washing the dishes.

Rather than fight the admittedly ceaseless tide of copyright infringements in payment for the theft, in payment for literally everything the SCP Wiki is and that all of us have enjoyed, the Staff have decided for the community to simply kill the image and bail. They have removed the need to uphold their end of the bargain. They’ve prioritized their legal anxiety over the sustainment of the most iconic and important image to the community and in the history of their Wiki. Quelling their legal paranoia is more important to them than what the image means for the rest of us. And they sold the wider fanbase on it by legal fearmongering, and an ethical pig in a poke. And they got away with it.

So zooming back out, we can see how this seems like a great thing, but it isn’t. It’s not legally sound, and it is a petty thing to do to Izumi Kato, in the name of benefiting him too! The only good thing about this is the explosion of amazing art, but that’s like saying how pretty the vaporized remains of the original SCP-173 dance in the sunlight after you blow it up into a million smaller pieces.

And as much as I have enjoyed it, the art “celebration” is the PR shield for the SCP Wiki Staff’s disastrous and frankly selfish decision. They know they can feature these re-imaginings to the greater consumption class and keep the larger audience appeased in some way, distracted by the jingling keys. Combine that with a false legal argument and a morally questionable act disguised and proclaimed as a virtuous one, and you can see why some SCP Staff are oddly celebratory about the removal of the SCP-173 image…

An SCP Wiki Staff member with a typical response regarding the SCP-173 image removal (source, archived).

… something you would think these guardians of the Wiki would be at least somewhat sad about. At least, some of us hoped they would be.

Guess not.

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