For the best, and the worst accounts on Twitter, it may have just gotten a lot harder to stay in business. On Saturday, as noted by the account @PlagiarismBad, and reported by The Verge, the social media platform seems to have quietly begun hiding tweets that have been reported as plagiarized. The tweet in question came from Olga Lexell, a Los Angeles-based writer, who confirmed that she had reported a number of accounts — “spam accounts that repost tons of other people's jokes every day" — for stealing a joke of hers. According to her, it wasn’t the first time they’d complied with such a request.
“I simply explained to Twitter that as a freelance writer I make my living writing jokes (and I use some of my tweets to test out jokes in my other writing),” she said. “I then explained that as such, the jokes are my intellectual property, and that the users in question did not have my permission to repost them without giving me credit.”
Hers is a widespread feeling of resentment at so-called parody accounts that have prospered off the backs of lesser known writers and comedians. Although, in this case, one might have hoped the Rosa Parks of Twitter joke plagiarism had been a little, you know, funnier:
“saw someone spill their high end juice cleanse all over the sidewalk and now I know god is on my side"
— uh (@runolgarun) July 9, 2015”
She’s since protected her account, one can safely assume, due to the high volume of people outright harassing her, or responding with variations of “What’s the big deal?” and “It’s just a joke.” There’s also been plenty of the old “Haven’t people always done variations on the ‘Have you heard the one about…’” set up? The answers to all of those questions are simple: no, no and no. No-one under the age of 75 goes around telling one-liners to their friends anymore, and if they do, their opinion on anything regarding intellectual property is not to be trusted.
As Lexell explained, for very many people, the arranging of words, often into humorous – or not so humorous as the case may be – configurations, is in fact an act of labour. Telling jokes, yes, even on Twitter, is literally part of peoples’ jobs, and the fruits of their labour don’t become any less theirs simply because you want to repurpose them for your own gain. We’ve become accustomed to the fluidity of ownership on the internet, but that doesn’t make it any less boorish and unethical when someone plagiarizes your hard work. “It’s just a joke” is an excuse offered up by the type of person who’s never once made someone laugh in their life without quoting the Simpsons.
Beyond that, as I wrote back in January in the Washington Post, the problem is exacerbated today because there’s a lot of money to be made stealing jokes online. Many such accounts, who outright take funny posts from users and share them with their millions of followers, make real money in the process.
One user I follow, @Bakkooonn recently saw a hilarious tweet of his hit the assembly line of the Plagiarism Industrial Complex with typical results. For users like that, who do have a unique voice, it can be hugely dispiriting to see their material wend its way through the ouroboros of joke thievery.
“I found it obnoxious at first but when I realized it was sort of functioning like a tracer round or barium dye going through that system of Twitter and Tumblrs that serve to repost this stuff I was kind of fascinated,” he told me. “It’s like a very mild and very dumb out of body experience.”
Indeed, seeing something you created posted on someone else’s Twitter account can be exceptionally disorienting. While he wasn’t as annoyed as others have been, “there was definitely something uncanny about watching a throwaway idea I had get flooded through spam content mills,” he said. It was stolen by dozens and dozens of accounts, and retweeted tens of thousands of times.
In Twitter’s new effort, they seem to at least be making an effort to solve the issue that many have been complaining about for a long time now. Why is this joke theft acceptable, even rewarded?
Others have sounded a similar alarm, including writer Rob Fee in Playboy. “It’s interesting that if we were talking about a song, film, speech, or news report it would be obvious why plagiarism is a big deal, but in writing jokes the response is usually met with eye rolls.”
A similar pushback emerged online Saturday after the news from the usual rogue’s gallery of venal cretins. If you can stomach it, try to follow the responses to this user, @ChrisBrewington after being called out for lifting a tweet from @OhNoSheTwitnt.
It's funny how seriously people take things over the Internet, chill 💁🏿— Chris Brewington (@ChrisBrewington) July 26, 2015
“Oh for fucks sake. You shouldn't be able to copyright WORDS. It's scummy as FUCK,” wrote one typical plagiarism apologist commenter on a thread about the issue. “It could probably be viewed as censorship, to boot,” replied another.
That’s not how censorship works. The problem is that most of us have an even flimsier understanding of how copyright works, or what it even is, or it applies to tweets in the first place. Legal opinions on whether or not a tweet is subject to copyright law vary widely, but mostly because the issue hasn’t been tested in front of the courts. Laws vary in the UK and Europe and the States of course, but some, like Andres Guadamuz, an Intellectual Property Law expert in the UK think that there’s a strong case to be made. In a previous case the Court of Justice of the European Union “declared that the reproduction of 11 words was enough to show infringement,” he writes. “It is therefore safe to assume that European courts will consider tweets to be original works if they “contain elements which are the expression of the intellectual creation of the author of the work.”
Brock Shinen, an American business, intellectual property and entertainment attorney, tackled the subject a few years back in a widely shared piece, but was a bit more skeptical of the potential of a tweet falling under copyright law:
“The question is not: Are Tweets Copyrightable. The question is: Is This Tweet Copyrightable. The copyrightability of Tweets is not dependent on the fact that they are Tweets. Rather, it’s dependent on the analysis of the Tweet in question.”
Twitter, for now, seems to think they’re in the clear under the auspices of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the law through which owners of a copyright on movies, music, etc typically file request for material to be removed from sites. Twitter users can file their own DMCA claims here via their help centre.
Twitter, like many companies that host content from users, has an entire system for handling claims of copyright infringement. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), Twitter is provided "safe harbour" from copyright claims so long as it does not try to protect infringing material. Typically, claims concern embedded media like photos and videos, or they're for tweets that link to other websites that are illegally hosting copyrighted material, like movies. It's rarer for a DMCA request to involve the actual text of a 140-character tweet.
Anyone can submit a claim through Twitter's web form, and Twitter staffers weed through the claims to decide which appear valid. If it decides to follow through with the request, Twitter can then remove or delete the tweet. The company's policy is to then give the offending user ten days to file a counter notice. Twitter also publishes DMCA requests publicly on the website Chilling Effects, though records of this particular claim do not appear to be on the site yet. Twitter declined to comment for this story.
Of course, it should come as little surprise that people and corporations have tried to use DMCA takedowns for illegitimate reasons. Most recently, the Sunday Times tried to use DMCA to block criticism of one of its articles, and GoPro was accused of trying a similar tactic to cut down on negative reviews.
Even those who are probably not dismissive of the problem of plagiarism in theory have been critical of the move. “This may be the dumbest thing that twitter has ever done,” tweeted The Awl’s Matt Buchanan. Admittedly, there are other more pressing concerns for Twitter to fix, including the problems of harassment and abuse, and the odds of Twitter’s team being able to handle, and accurately parse a significant volume of requests like this is highly suspect as well. Nonetheless, it’s a start. To paraphrase Lexell “Saw someone have their ripped off Twitter joke deleted, and now I know god is on my side.”
Follow Luke O'Neil on Twitter here @lukeoneil47