People are getting job offers and recognition for their tweets – it’s time to get serious about plagiarism on Twitter.
Twitter is important enough that everyone needs it, yet you probably don’t realize how many tweets in your timeline are copied from someone else’s thoughts. And even if you do, you might, “What’s the big deal? It’s just Twitter.”
Turns out, it is a big deal. Those 140 characters matter.
Why Stolen Tweets Are Important
Your tweets are your work; you should get credit for them. Twitter provides simple ways for others to share your tweets, with attribution, including retweeting and quoting. But that’s not enough for some, who will just flat out pretend to have come up with your words. You can do your best and use tips to fight online plagiarism, but there is no way of being ever-vigilant against this.
Whether the tweet is brilliant or not is irrelevant to some crusaders, like Mumbai-based Prasad Naik (@krazyfrog). He feels strongly about the subject and often uncovers copied tweets.
The amount of time and energy I spend to find the source when I feel a tweet was stolen boggles my own mind. I might need help.
— Ted Bunty (@krazyfrog) June 13, 2014
In a blog post titled Why It’s Not Cool to Copy Tweets, Naik says that a lot of people who copy tweets don’t think they are doing anything wrong, since they don’t perceive things on the Internet as being of any value in real life.
“Twitter doesn’t have any copyright laws as such but that doesn’t mean a tweet isn’t someone’s intellectual property,” he says. “It’s like a painting, or a poem, or a song. Just because it’s 140 characters doesn’t make it any less important nor any less egregious if stolen.”
He’s not alone.
“You might be thinking, ‘What’s the big deal with retelling someone else’s joke?’ As a professional writer, I can tell you it’s a VERY big deal,” Bryan Belknap writes in Morf Magazine. “Students typically get expelled for plagiarizing a school paper. Writers get sued and lose jobs for claiming another’s work as their own. You might be surprised the same principle applies to jokes. (It’s the whole reason for that handy dandy retweet button, folks.)”
Belknap was writing in response to one of the most famous cases of Twitter plagiarism: Sammy Rhodes. In fact, Rhodes is a good example of what Naik describes as “people who don’t think they are doing anything wrong.”
When The Internet Fights Back
Sammy Rhodes is a pastor who gained quite a large following on Twitter with comical tweets. Except, as it turned out, Rhodes wasn’t coming up with those witty sayings himself: he often directly copied the work of other Twitter comics or rewrote it slightly to try and pass it off as his own.
He became notorious for it. There was an entire website called Borrowing Sam, dedicated to tracking his plagiarism. The issue really got the spotlight when comedian Patton Oswalt publicly called out Rhodes.
Apart from a long blog post, Oswalt took to Twitter to accuse Rhodes of copying tweets from other comedians. Oswalt’s strong language prevents us from embedding his tweets here, but you can read more about the issue on The Huffington Post, Patheos, and St. Louis magazine.
Rhodes defended himself in an interview with Salon, saying he didn’t think of his tweets as plagiarism. He sought the analogy of a new guitarist learning by “riffing” off the greats. The analogy falls flat though. When a guitarist covers a popular song, it’s the song that is popular, not the artist alone. And before this controversy took off, Rhodes never clarified he was “inspired” by these other jokes online as he rode his way to over 130,000 followers on Twitter.
“While I can honestly say in my mind I never purposely ripped off another writer or comedian (lots of people I supposedly stole from actually followed me at the time), I do think it’s fair to say I repackaged jokes,” he wrote on his blog. “At the time I thought I made them enough my own that it didn’t qualify as plagiarism. I know better now. I never should have repurposed a joke without first checking with the comedian or writer who originally wrote it. This was foolish and selfish on my part, and not the first time in my life I’ve been both of those things.”
Since then, Rhodes has changed his former @prodigalsam handle to @sammyrhodes, and still has about 120,000 followers. That number is not an easy one to reach. There are several dos and don’ts to attract and retain Twitter followers, so it’s difficult to imagine that Rhodes doesn’t know what he’s doing.
And he seems to be recycling his own jokes now, which he has previously defended. Some people aren’t happy with that either though, as Gawker’s Defamer had called out comedian Kelly Oxford for it. But that’s another matter altogether.
Thieves Get Caught, But “It’s Just Twitter” Lets Them Off
Rhodes and Oxford aren’t alone in this. Stealing tweets is a widespread problem right now – even celebrities do it. The Hollywood Gossip talks about how country singer LeAnn Rimes seemed to be lifting motivational quotes from Twitter user Rachel Wolchin, and trying to pass them off as her own. Rimes writes the quotes on a chalkboard and posts them on Instagram, resharing them on Twitter.
“Wolchin is an LA-area writer and photographer, and apparently LeAnn figured she’s non-famous enough that her tweets could be stolen without anyone noticing. Unfortunately, LeAnn has a ton of online haters, several of whom have called her out for stealing from Wolchin without giving her credit,” THG writes.
What’s come of this? Nothing much.
Don't ever lose your softness to their arrogance, let your soul give them hell.
— Rachel Wolchin (@RachelWolchin) July 2, 2013
When Naik confronts someone who has copied a tweet, he usually gets one of three types of reactions.
“The first is where the person claims that it’s just a coincidence that their tweet looks like someone else’s. If that was really the case, it’s usually easy to tell but if it’s repeated verbatim then you can’t really expect me to believe you,” he told MakeUseOf. “The second type usually just admits straight up that they did read it somewhere and they just wanted to share it. I don’t believe these people really understand what they did so I don’t really like giving them too much flak for it. The third one is the worst. They go on the offense and instead ask ‘who appointed you the Twitter Police?’ or that ‘it’s just a tweet’ or worst of all, ‘you’re just jealous of all the retweets I’m getting.’ What pleasure some people gain for getting credit for someone else’s work is something I’d never understood. I’d like to say that these people would hate it if someone copied their good tweets but I doubt they can ever come up with anything worthwhile.”
Like Naik said, even when it is pointed out, copying tweets is often not seen as a big deal. The above tweet about a fake menu of celebrity chef Guy Fieri’s new restaurant went viral, but many of the items were part of old jokes by other users on Twitter, who never got credit. Mytko eventually gave credit to the original jokes after some Twitter users raised a ruckus about the lack of accreditation. However, The Wire notes how none of the major media outlets who loved Mytko’s menu concentrated on the plagiarism.
“If we haven’t even gotten out from under our beholdenness to print yet, how long until something as ephemeral (but archived!) as Twitter is respected as a protected medium for creation?” writes Richard Lawson. “This may all sound overly dramatic — we’re talking about fake Guy Fieri food, after all — but its larger implications do matter. What are the boundaries of ownership on something like Twitter?”
What the Law Says
There is bad news for those who believe tweets should be protected as intellectual property in the same way that an article by a journalist in a leading newspaper should be protected.
“Under US law, copyright is granted on publication to ‘original works of authorship’ finalized in ‘fixed forms of expression’ but this does not extend to names, titles, or short phrases (PDF),” explains entrepreneur and podcaster Jeffrey Zeldman. “As messages sent via Twitter cannot be longer than 140 characters, they cannot be copyrighted. However original, witty, or profound they may be, nothing more than good manners protects your original expression of authorship.”
Additionally, Twitter doesn’t offer any protection, and turns a blind eye towards such cases.
“Twitter is well known for not paying any attention to the problems of its users. More serious issues like harassment are dealt with a hamfisted approach. It’s going to be a long time if they even find out that this problem exists and maybe work on a solution,” Naik told MakeUseOf. “Perhaps they can allow people to report accounts known to peddle other people’s tweets. But considering the state of affairs currently on Twitter, I doubt that’s going to do any good.”
Even if you think your tweets are hilarious and worth money, that doesn’t matter, according to Sinapse, an intellectual property news tracker in India.
Copyright law doesn’t consider humour as a factor. It does consider originality, but the level of analysis and technical understanding required in the legal context is not met with facts reiterated with an interesting twist.
Twitter’s official Terms of Service enable them to make your Tweets available to the rest of the world and let others do the same. As per WIPO, fair use doesn’t come into play if the material is not copyrighted to begin with (and tweets most certainly are not).
There is some law on your side though. While your 140-character tweets might not be protected content, you can still claim copyrights on photos posted on Twitter, under certain circumstances. In fact, a photographer won a $1.2 million lawsuit for unlawful use of his Twitter images.
What You Can Do
It’s not simple to find out if someone is stealing your tweets. You could check a service like Who Stole My Tweet, but it only scans your last five tweets against tweets by other users. Plus, it won’t track down people like Rhodes, who slightly re-write things.
Naik recommends using Twitter search to find what matters or just being vigilant about seeing your own joke being posted on other social networks, by someone blissfully unaware of its source. But more often than not, you just need to have a thick skin and live with the theft.
“It’s not something I’d suggest people do, though,” Naik tells us. “If it was a good tweet, it’s bound to be copied sooner or later. You could maybe take solace in the face that someone found your tweet good enough to copy. Unless, of course, someone is profiting from your work. Then you need to take it seriously.”
Of course, if it’s a tweet you are particularly proud of, you might want to publicly call out the thief and engage in a showdown. Before you do that though, consider the fact that they might have come up with the same tweet without reading yours. Comedy site Splitsider’s guide on questions to ask before accusing someone of stealing your jokes also holds true for humorous and non-humorous content on Twitter.
As for images, while the aforementioned photographer did win his case, it was because of a particular clause: that you can’t take content posted on Twitter and republish it in a platform outside Twitter. Just to be on the safe side with your photos, now is a good time to find out how Creative Commons can protect you. For further research, there are a few great resources to understand copyright law.
Is It “Just Twitter” or Something More?
The most common argument against plagiarism on Twitter is that Twitter should not be taken seriously. Indeed, the short length of a tweet is why the law does not consider tweets worthy of protection. But there was a time when blogs weren’t taken seriously either, and today, plagiarism from a blog is considered a big deal.
So we want to know: what do you think? Is it “just Twitter” or should we start looking at Twitter differently, as a genuine platform for content that deserves intellectual property rights?