It started with a tweet:

emshort Broken Picture Telephone. So wrong and yet so right.

A quick web search revealed that she was referring to an online game that adapted the old preschool game "Telephone" for the web. The rules were simple. Someone starts a game by posting an idea for a drawing. Another person attempts to render that idea in a primitive Shockwave drawing utility: eleven colors, six brushes, and an undo button. Then a third person, seeing only the drawing and not the original caption, attempts to describe the drawing. A fourth person draws the third person's caption, never having seen the second person's drawing. And so on. The front page of the site provided a sample:

However, that sample missed the point of what made the game so interesting, at least to me: namely, that there were players who tried to make their drawings genuinely good, or at least as good as one could reasonably expect given the crude nature of the drawing tools and the ten-minute time limit. I was really impressed by the contributions of a player who went by the name "cendrillon":

Why did the orange duck cross the road?

A boy Tetris piece hits on a girl Tetris piece at a posh martini bar.

Inspired, I wound up playing more Broken Picture Telephone than I probably should have. In fact, looking at my stats, I see that I spent around 60 hours of my nine weeks in Canada playing it. Part of that had to do with the positive feedback loop of seeing my artistic ability improve exponentially, at least in this particular format. I'd go so far as to say that I went from abysmal to solidly mediocre. Here's one of my later drawings:

Girl grabs stars from the sky

But simply drawing a straightforward interpretation of the prompt tended to be less fun than trying to put a spin on it. Here's the thought process behind one of my early favorites. I received the prompt "A smug shark plays tennis." So I thought, hmm, okay, how do I draw a shark on a tennis court? Balancing on its tailfin? I guess... but wait! What if the tennis match is in the shark's element? And what if the opponent is just some dude? That would explain the smugness, no? And so nine minutes later I submitted this:

A smug shark plays tennis.

Here's another example — not the best, for reasons I'll get to in a moment, but one of the only ones I happen to have on hand. The prompt was "green ball with 3 grey lines and 1 black line". All right, I thought, that's easy enough to draw — I could knock that out in ten seconds. But that's boring! How can I come up with a context for this that would be more interesting? All right, what if this is a mysterious inscription on the wall of some ancient tomb that an enterprising young archeologist has just discovered? Scribble scribble scribble, and:

green ball with 3 grey lines and 1 black line

Like I said, I'd like to show you a better example, but unfortunately, I can't. You see, of the 60 hours of effort I put into BPT, the last 25 or so I effectively wound up pouring into a black hole. For Broken Picture Telephone is completely broken in multiple ways, and Alishah Novin, the creator and sole maintainer of the site, has thus far ignored all entreaties to fix it. And the implications of this state of affairs are what I really wanted to write about.

Even before the game crashed — it's been totally unplayable for weeks — it had serious problems. First of all, it was altogether too susceptible to trolling. There was nothing stopping sociopathic morons from getting accounts and spending a few hours ruining hundreds of games by writing "big penor" in response to every prompt. The more constructive players quickly conjured up several ways to combat the trolls, the most promising of which was a "skip and report" button that would have offered trusted moderators a chance to revert vandalism. Did Alishan Novin implement any of these ideas? He did not. Now, sure, that would have taken some effort on his part. And, yes, a number of generous coders volunteered to do it themselves for free if he didn't have time, but I can understand why you might not want people messing around with your code. However, other instances of inaction weren't so defensible.

Broken Picture Telephone has a bug that operates as follows — or perhaps I should say "operated," since it hasn't affected anyone since the game crashed. Anyway. Every player's account has a field that indicates what game number to attempt to serve up the next time the player wants to contribute to a game. Say you'd just added a panel to game 56101 and indicated that you wanted to play again. The site would look for the next available game. If the next fifteen games were all being worked on, it would serve you game 56117 and bump up your game ID field accordingly. Now you could never play games 56102 through 56116. But so be it. Here's where the problem comes in. Say you were tired of drawing and decided that you wanted to write some captions. You'd tell the site to give you a drawing to write a caption for. Well, since all games start with captions, there were always lots of captions available, but relatively few drawings. And every now and then there'd be so few that the next available drawing might have an ID number like, say, 80432.

Now you could never play a game with an ID number below 80432. And since only around 200 games finished per day, that meant that nothing you contributed to the site would be visible for around four months.

Lots of players fell victim to this bug. I was one of them. But it's an easy fix, right? I know enough about coding online games to know that, unlike the "skip and report" system, this is a five-minute fix. Just add a button that lets players reset their game ID fields. Did Alishah Novin do this? He did not.

And, hey — why were there tens of thousands of games in the queue anyway? The very existence of an ID number like 80432 suggested that games were stacking up. And indeed as of this writing there are 36627 games which are waiting to be launched with a drawing. Many, many, MANY people begged Alishah Novin: please, take a few seconds — seriously, a few seconds — and kill the "start a new game" link so we can begin to chip away at this enormous backlog. Did Alishah Novin take those few seconds? He did not.

Why not? One of Alishah Novin's other sites hints at an answer. On it, he boasts that he is the creator of over 80 web sites, ranging from eccentrically formatted blogs to debate networks to comedic webtoys to Broken Picture Telephone. His modus operandi seems to be to churn these suckers out and then, no matter how half-baked they might turn out to be, never look back. On to the next! So, for instance, while dozens of BPT players were pleading for half an hour of his time for some direly needed maintenance, he was busily cooking up... another piece of blog software, this time one that mimicked the old Commodore 64 interface. Which was buggy. Oh well. Next!

Which raises a number of questions:

First, does Alishah Novin owe the players of Broken Picture Telephone anything? On the surface, this would seem to be covered by the famous exchange in the Poochie episode of The Simpsons:

Comic Book Guy: "Last night's Itchy & Scratchy was, without a doubt, the worst episode ever. Rest assured I was on the Internet within minutes registering my disgust throughout the world."

Bart: "Hey, I know it wasn't great, but what right do you have to complain?"

Comic Book Guy: "As a loyal viewer, I feel they owe me."

Bart: "What? They're giving you thousands of hours of entertainment for free. What could they possibly owe you? I mean, if anything, you owe them."

Comic Book Guy: "Worst episode ever."

I'm also reminded of an article I read in the late '90s about online music piracy, which was just beginning to take off. Metallica was one of the first bands to come out against it in a big way, leading to a backlash from fans. The article described a concert in which one of the members of Metallica was explaining to a booing audience that they were just trying to make sure they could continue to make a living off their music. To which a fan next to the reporter shouted, "Fuck you! It's our music!" Reading this really enraged me. I mean, are you serious? You're such an infant that you think that this music, composed and performed by the guys on stage, belongs to you, just because you like it?

That said, I think this case is different, and serves as an example of the murkiness of ownership in a Web 2.0 world. Yes, Alishah Novin coded up the software that ran the site (or, all too often, failed to run it) and allowed people to use it for free. But all of the actual content that made up the site, those tens of thousands of games representing several human-years' worth of effort... that was contributed by the players, also for free. We are collaborators in a way that Metallica fans are not. And yes, we all clicked the little button signing over the rights to our work. If Alishah Novin wants our drawings to sit around unseen on his web space until he or his hosting service pulls the plug, he is legally entitled to do so. But I don't think I'm out of line in saying that doing so would be a dick move. At the very least, if the site is to be abandoned, we should get a chance to collect our contributions.

This raises another set of issues, of course, for the ethics of a creator abandoning his or her work are just as murky. Copyright was initially intended to encourage creators to release their work by allowing them to profit from it while it was in the full flower of its popularity... but then it was supposed to be released to the public domain. This doesn't really happen anymore, in large part because a bunch of people who had nothing to do with the creation of Mickey Mouse want to retain the legal rights to the character that have been handed down to them thanks to modern society's embrace of the fiction known as the corporation. But people recognize the basic wrongness of this. Hence the notion of "abandonware," the idea that obsolete software should belong to the public even if some corporation technically holds the legal right to it. If that corporation wants to try selling copies of the program, the argument goes, please do so! But if not — if that's not profitable — then what the corporation doesn't have the moral right to do is just sit on the property and not allow anyone access to it. Once it's been abandoned, it should be returned, first, to the moral owner (i.e., the creator), and then, if the moral owner doesn't want to make it available, to the public.

People have made the same sort of argument on the BPT discussion boards. If Alishah Novin has lost interest in the site, they say, that's fine — enjoy cranking out those web sites! But before you go, turn over the keys to this one. Let someone who wants to maintain it keep it going! Because whatever Bill Cosby's father may have contended, bringing a child into the world doesn't give you the right to take him out of it.

The thing is, as a software creator myself, I can also see the other side of the argument. A decade ago I released a program called Varicella. The "current version" is 1.14, dated 31 August 1999. Over the course of the subsequent ten years it has been brought to my attention that the program still contains a handful of bugs. Do I plan to do anything about it? Nah. Do I plan to release the code into the public domain so that some generous volunteer can fix it for me? I'm afraid not. I may no longer be actively developing it, but I still say it's mine. And I'm certainly glad that I didn't release Photopia into the public domain before the movie industry came calling. So, sure, I can certainly see why Alishah Novin might want to just sit on his broken code while hundreds of users check in every day to see whether he's fixed anything yet, which he never has.

But I can also see why those users are tearing their hair out while Alishah Novin cheerfully tweets "Chocolate chip cookie time!" I think I've told this story before, but here it is again: in 1995 I got a speeding ticket. (It turns out that MLK, despite being a major thoroughfare, is zoned 25. Who knew.) At the time you could avoid getting points on your record by going to traffic school, so I did. At one point the teacher asked for our pet peeves where driving was concerned. After he'd heard ours, he said he had two. "One, pedestrians who dawdle in the crosswalk after the light's turned green. Two, drivers who try to hurry me when I'm walking across the street." Isn't that pretty much always how it works?

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