Let's walk over to the elephant in the room and pat it on the head. This is an article about the ethics of online plagiarism but it is not the first. It is heartening to know that there have been others; they represent a call-to-arms, however minute, against the lazy copy-and-paste “aggregation” that passes for writing in the kingdom of Twitter and Facebook.
When a huge news story breaks, Twitter is infested with jokes on the subject. Impossible to stop, they spread like a rash. And, when a joke accrues a decent number of retweets, the joke is simply lifted unattributed, and passed off as belonging to the burglar. Many people see a funny tweet, then say to themselves, "I'm not going to retweet that – I'm going to go to the effort of making it look like I came up with it.”
The problem has become significant enough for Twitter to be forced into action. The network is now clamping down on plagiarised tweets by deleting them if they believe them to infringe upon the copyright of the original writer. Freelance writer Olga Lexell, using the Twitter handle @runolgarun explains here that, as her jokes are her intellectual property, she reported the plagiarism to Twitter, who removed the offending, plagiarised tweets. This is encouraging news given the consequence-free nature of Twitter plagiarism thus far. (Though Lexell has now set her Twitter profile to “protected”, presumably in the face of backlash from aggrieved joke-thieves).
British comedians like Adam Hess, Gary Delaney, and Rhys James – whose tweets have shaped their reputation, thereby putting money into their pockets – have material stolen regularly by people online. Gary Delaney tells me that he no longer bothers checking whether a joke of his has been stolen: “It's better not to know. Knowing just makes you lose confidence in the gag which is a worse problem than you had before.”
And steal jokes people certainly do. A search for a Rhys James tweet like this one, for example, proves the point. People simply copy the text and pretend they are the wit. In making it supremely easy for everyone to create, the web has also made it supremely easy for everyone to look like they create. “Nowadays I just accept that every good joke I write will be stolen, and try not to get angry,” says Delaney. “There's nothing I can do about it.”
Calling people out on this naked plagiarism doesn't open up particularly friendly conversation. Almost to a man these people aggressively tell me they are doing nothing wrong. How hard would it be to insert quotation marks around the joke? Much too hard, they tell me. If they're not sure exactly who came up with it, they're not going to strain themselves. Plus, they say, no one cares – they have hardly any followers. The implication here is that they would cease stealing if they gained a huge following. Difficult to believe.
When confronted, a guy called Cliff Rancor launches this truth bomb at me: “You cannot steal a joke – if you don't want anybody to use it themselves, don't tell it to anybody.”
@OhHiRalphJones You cannot steal a joke - if you don't want anybody to use it themselves, don't tell it to anybody.— Cliff Rancor!! (@clifba) January 26, 2015
Gerard Keane, when copying a Gary Delaney joke,gives a wonderful excuse for not attributing it to its creator: “didn't mean too leave him off but tweet was too long [sic].” Funnily enough, Twitter is conveniently designed to sidestep that problem. There's a Retweet button.
@OhHiRalphJones didn't mean too leave him off but tweet was too long— Gerard Keane (@keaneger) January 26, 2015
I enrage 'MKNZ', and have this scintillating conversation with him. He tells me to “get a life” and insists that plagiarising tweets is just like repeating lyrics. I'll leave it to readers of this article to decide whether this analogy stands up to scrutiny. I don't know if MKNZ has since recanted, as he blocked me after I tried to take our conversation any further.
what do you mean the numbers in my toaster are minutes and not degrees of toastiness— Raphael Gomes (@raphablueberry) March 16, 2015
This is a tangible example of the problem: those that retweeted it, and the 33,000 others, assume that Gomes is the comedian here. He has done nothing to signal that he doesn't deserve this reputation in the slightest. As Rob Fee points out in a piece for Playboy, the crime is that all too many people are actually making a living from this kind of theft.
This point was hammered home to me when I read about vapid social network overlords The Social Chain. The Social Chain creates "parody Twitter accounts" en masse, and, like sneaking into your bedroom and leaving a turd in your bed, they use the popularity of these accounts to advertise to you. They and myriad companies like them see no harm in simply stealing content then passing it off as original. "In the Twitter space, the issue of copying is like breathing," founder Steve Bartlett (aged 22, it's worth pointing out) told BuzzFeed.
To them, and to thousands of others who view writing online as nothing more than 'content' to be harvested and regurgitated without attribution, it doesn't matter what you're saying – it matters only that people share it. If you're caught stealing a joke, you either silently delete it or you ignore the problem. Viewed through this prism, comedy writing online is lobotomised.
David Orr, the creator of numerous parody accounts that adopt The Social Chain methodology, shirks all responsibility: “Unfortunately Twitter limits us. Should Twitter allow for a place to link for a source,” he told BuzzFeed in November, “I'm sure everyone would be definitely open to that.” Considering these accounts are run not by writers but by marketers, this is staggeringly difficult to picture.
Does all this matter? Should I have bothered searching for regurgitated jokes, asking the plagiarists why they had pretended to have written them?
In a number of troubling ways, the internet's ascent is proving to be writing's downfall. The creation of funny 140-character tweets is an art like any other form of writing, and its most successful proponents want to get paid for what they do well. It will be nothing short of disastrous for future generations of writers if blatant plagiarism is seen as a perfectly viable artistic choice. It is dangerously close to this stage already; we are watching insipid opportunists become rich and famous by simply 'aggregating' the material of others. Why? Because it is easier than creating content oneself. All one needs is a computer and the internet. The Twitter accounts of these thieves are then sold to advertisers, who couldn't care less whether or not the content is original; they simply piggyback on the plagiarism in order to sell products to those who are none the wiser.
No one can possibly be original is virtually the internet's mantra: someone somewhere will have had the same idea as you, so why bother trying? The victory of this attitude, one in which companies like The Social Chain are emotionally and financially invested, is seriously threatening the integrity of online writing. While the rewards for regurgitating content remain higher than those for creating it, it's difficult to see this changing any time soon.