Finding someone else’s joke on Twitter, reposting it as your own without attribution, then collecting the retweets and faves that lead to your own development deal has quickly become our modern path to fame. But that infrastructure may be in peril now that Twitter is allowing users to file DMCA complaints against suspected joke thieves, then hiding their copycat tweets at the request of the “copyright holder.” For those who want to become famous Twitter comedians, it seems they will have to revert to the traditional method of paying a room full of desperate gag writers $5 a tweet.
As The Verge reports, tweet-shaming account @PlagiarismBad was the first to pick up on Twitter’s new initiative, noting that it had taken down several tweets ripping off a “juice cleanse” joke originally made by freelance writer Olga Lexall.
Lexall explained in a statement she posted to Twitter that she did file a formal request to have the tweets removed, calling them an obvious theft of her intellectual property. After all, it seems highly unlikely that so many people could have witnessed someone spilling their high-end juice cleanses, scattered all over the world. If that were the case, we’d barely be able to make our way down our city sidewalks, so slippery they would be with high-end juice.
As Lexall notes, most of those joke thieves were spam accounts that live only to post retweets of others’ witticisms and memes, though it’s a practice certainly not limited to hilarious robots. Human spam accounts like @9GAG are guilty of it, as are “parody” accounts such as the annoying fake Bill Murray that continues to pop up in the retweets of your dumbest friends. And as Business Insider and Playboy have both investigated, many tweet “aggregators” such as FuckJerry and Joshua “The Fat Jew” Ostrovsky have managed to turn repurposing the material of others into actual lucrative careers, scoring six-figure ad sponsorships and landing book and TV deals the likes of which we honest web content aggregators shall never see. With Twitter now inviting and investigating joke theft, it could spell an end to that sort of easy path to viral infamy. Except for those guys who already achieved it, because their thousands of undiscriminating followers clearly don’t give a shit.
Still, it’s a sign that tweet theft is starting to be taken seriously, as is the coincidentally timed lawsuit filed last week by one Robert Alexander Kaseberg, a comedy writer-for-hire who alleges that Conan O’Brien lifted several of his jokes from his Twitter and personal blog and repurposed them for his monologues. Among the gags he claims O’Brien’s staff must have happened upon and plagiarized: “Three streets named Bruce Jenner might have to change names, and one could go from a Cul-De-Sac to a Cul-De-Sackless;” “a Delta flight this week took off from Cleveland to New York with just two passengers, and they fought over control of the armrest the entire flight;” and “The Washington Monument is ten inches shorter than previously thought. You know the winter has been cold when a monument suffers from shrinkage.” As The Hollywood Reporter points out, these do bear some resemblance to jokes Conan has told on his show, which is damning for several reasons.
Were it to actually lead to a trial, it could lead to an interesting, more formal investigation of tweets as protected intellectual property. But in the meantime, Conan’s production company has already dismissed the lawsuit as without merit, implicitly defending the similarity in those jokes as just the byproduct of this empty, mirthless void we all must wander. Some call it “Twitter.”