The Downside of Success: Time Constraints on Recording Stolen Tweets & How You Can Help

TL;DR: Due to time constraints we cannot list plagiarists in the same quantity that we did before, because to retain credibility we need to document each offence that we act upon.

A few weeks ago, this account had about 1000 followers. In those days, and since the account’s inception, we followed back every follower to allow private DM conversation. Hence many of those followers probably didn’t care about our mission, but just wanted to add to their own follower count.

Since our work was featured in the Verge story on July 25th which was picked up worldwide by over 200 media outlets, our follower numbers have taken off so that we passed 3000 over the weekend. At the same time, we can now receive DMs from anyone due to a change in Twitter functionality so we don’t auto followback everybody anymore.

Now we have a strong sense that a high proportion of our followers do care about our mission.

Accordingly, the reports we receive have spiked; while at the same time people we call out for plagiarism are more concerned about the stigma as our name becomes better known. So a lot more people have started asking us why they were listed. And we feel we must respond.

How we used to log plagiarists: In the past we would take (for example) someone’s top tweet, do a twitter search on it, and list everyone who had copied it verbatim. Even if that was 100 people it didn’t take very much time to just add them to our list. We didn’t document the reason for every listing because to do so would have been very time-consuming.

And we are three volunteers with busy lives outside of Twitter.

I should add, we also always responded to individual complaints along the lines of “This person stole my tweet.” We’d investigate and if it checked out, we’d add the thief.

Very few people complained about being listed. This happened maybe a couple of times a month. If they did, it was usually easy for us to take the time (maybe 15 minutes) to search their TL and find a stolen tweet – even if it wasn’t the one they were originally listed for.

Since the article, much has changed. We now get asked maybe twice a day or more “Why was I listed?” And thirty minutes plus per day to investigate is not inconsequential. We don’t have the time to do that. And we begrudge that time because these people are plagiarists, so why should we spend it helping them? – especially as they, almost without exception, know they are guilty.

But we do feel we need to do it. Because if a perception arises that we will list tweeters as “plagiarists/thieves” without evidence, we can’t expect our list to be taken seriously.

How we log plagiarists now: Accordingly we don’t often do those “wide-net” searches anymore, listing everyone who stole a certain tweet. Today, before we add someone to our list, we attach to the plagiarized tweet an @ comment along the lines of:

“@{tweetthief} This is a plagiarized tweet written by @{author}; Please delete it per [Twitter’s TOS|request of the author]. #plagiarismbad”

And then we attach to that comment screencaps showing ideally the original tweet and the stolen one. (But we don’t feel we’re obliged to post the original — merely a version that was posted before the one we’re listing as stolen.)

Going forward, this means that if someone asks us why they were listed, we (or anyone) can simply go to the Twitter search-bar, enter “@{tweetthief} #plagiarismbad” (without the quotes/brackets) and the evidence will appear. And it will still be there even if they have tried to deceive us by deleting the stolen tweet before complaining.

The downside: This is time-consuming. Gathering the screencaps and pasting them, especially takes time.

So while we appreciate all input from our supporters, a message like “Search on [Funny tweet]. It’s been stolen hundreds of times!” is probably not one we will be able to act on. We wish we could. But that would be a full-time job, and no one pays us for doing this – nor do we ever expect that they should.

Reporting now (from our FAQ):

If you just want to add a person to our list, you can send us a direct message with:

  • Screen capture of the original tweet (including date)
  • Screen capture of the stolen tweet (including date)
  • @ of the thief (so we don’t have to try to type it from the screen capture)

If you look at the thief’s “Lists” and then “Member Of” you can see if they are already on our list. There is no point reporting them again in that case.

We do get a lot of duplicate reports; so telling us that @Menshumor stole a tweet isn’t news to us. But if you’ve taken the time to send those screencaps, we will post them with our text beneath the stolen tweet. And if you are the author of a stolen tweet, you can expect our particular attention. Again the screen-cap will ideally be the original, but if it shows copies that predate the reported “stolen” one, that is sufficient.

Conclusion:

We value all interaction with our supporters. If you want to help, please follow the reporting guidelines above. Or you can simply search on #plagiarismbad, look at the evidence and if it seems solid to you, star or retweet it so the knowledge of the theft is disseminated. The landscape changes all the time, and our response in the future may also change, but for now this is how we are keeping up with the growing plagiarism reports. And we hope you can continue to support our mission: to see appropriate credit goes to the many talented writers on Twitter today; while those that would steal it are appropriately exposed.

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The Downside of Success: Time Constraints on Recording Stolen Tweets & How You Can Help

My Request to Twitter for Clarification on Copyright Denial (08/06/2015)

On August 5, 2015 I had a DMCA complaint denied by Twitter. I had complained because another Twitter user had clearly copied a joke I wrote. I provided links to both my original and to the copy. (See below)

There was no clear reason given for the denial other than that I had failed to establish copyright. Since I knew at that point, Twitter had recognized copyright in jokes in the case of Olga Lexell (@runolgarun) and another Twitter user (@smethanie), I asked them what was missing from my complaint that meant my joke was not — in their view — subject to copyright.

As you will see Twitter’s response has been simply to repeatedly stonewall polite and legitimate inquiries by firing off boilerplate and refusing to address the important issues they themselves have recently raised.

***

Dear Twitter

I wrote and posted this joke exclusively on Twitter on 6/22/14

On 9/27/14 another user @mr_pastry copy/pasted it verbatim on Twitter:

I know you’ve taken down other stolen jokes so I feel I have a right to know why you saw copyright in those jokes (by @runolgarun and by @smethanie) but not in mine.

Please tell me what I need to do differently?

Background, I am the anonymous the Twitter user mentioned in this article in the Atlantic:
 “On July 25, a Twitter user noticed something strange. The site has long suffered from joke theft—usually involving spam accounts that copy and paste other user’s popular tweets in a cheap bid for attention. But it seemed like, for the first time, one comedian’s stolen jokes were being quietly deleted and replaced”

So as you can see I can quite invested in this.

So I would just like to know why I have failed to establish copyright in my joke, while the other complainants were able to establish it in theirs?

***

Within 45 minutes I received the following form response from Twitter:

***

Hello,

Thank you for your report; Twitter takes reports of this nature very seriously.

We reviewed the account and content reported and are unable to take action given that we could not determine a clear violation of the Twitter Rules (https://twitter.com/rules) surrounding abusive behavior. We’re happy to revisit our decision if circumstances change or if you can provide additional context. If you have additional information to share that would improve our understanding of the situation, please send it our way.

Although there will be no action taken at this time, there are tools you can use that are designed to help you control what you see and what others can see about you on Twitter. This help article lists those tools as well as information about how to use them: https://support.twitter.com/articles/20170134.

If you feel threatened or are in danger, please contact your local law enforcement. You can direct the local law enforcement to our Guidelines for Law Enforcement here: https://support.twitter.com/articles/41949.

Thank you,

Twitter

***

At 12:56 I sent the following response adding just a small amount of text at the top:

Dear Twitter,

I would very much appreciate if a person would respond to the questions in my mail. Why is my joke considered not copyrightable when others are. I think that is a very reasonable request

I know lots of people want to know how to protect their content and by acting inconsistently you are damaging your brand. Simply — what makes a joke copyrightable?

***

Within 4 minutes (at 1:00pm) I received the same standard boilerplate from Twitter as above.

All I would like to know is what differentiates, in Twitter’s view, a copyrightable claim for a joke from one that is not copyrightable. I think I share that curiosity with many other people. Yet Twitter are clearly feeling little obligation to answer that. And their standard replies are abrupt — if not insulting. But I will keep asking.

ADDENDUM 8/6/15 1:58PM

This is the first Twitter Complaint Denial I received yesterday. It makes clear they were evaluating it as a Copyright issue; not as a violation of terms issue which their subsequent boilerplate messages did:

August 5th, 2015 @ 6:03pm

Hello,

We have received your DMCA takedown notice regarding copyrighted Tweet text. We have evaluated your claims and have determined no further action is warranted. Accordingly, we will not be removing the reported content at this time. If you wish to appeal this decision, please provide evidence of your copyright(s) regarding the allegedly infringed text.

 Thanks,

 Twitter

My Request to Twitter for Clarification on Copyright Denial (08/06/2015)

Does Talent Borrow, Genius Steal?

“Talent borrows. Genius Steals!” is a quote attributed most often, though inconclusively, to Oscar Wilde. And it’s often used by people who shamelessly rip off others, in a glib attempt to justify their appalling behavior. Tweet thieves being a notable example.

Wilde was a brilliant writer, and “The Picture of Dorian Grey” is among my favorite novels. But I don’t look to Oscar Wilde for ethical guidance. However if Wilde provides your moral compass, presumably you are also completely on board with everything else he wrote including:

  • “Nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.”
  • “Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination.”
  • “Between men and women there is no friendship possible.”
  • “When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is.”

And my personal favorite:

  • “The only thing that sustains one through life is the consciousness of the immense inferiority of everybody else.”

Words, to live by – right?

Similarly, Russian composer, Igor Stravinsky is quoted as having said “lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.”  And those who quote that line as authoritative fact presumably also support these contentions:

  • “Harpists spend 90 percent of their lives tuning their harps and 10 percent playing out of tune.”
  • “Music praises God. Music is well or better able to praise him than the building of the church and all its decoration; it is the Church’s greatest ornament.”
  • “Film music should have the same relationship to the film drama that somebody’s piano playing in my living room has on the book I am reading.”
  • “Zoo animals have been known to die from stares.”

The point being that just because a quote is famous, or was made by a famous or talented person doesn’t mean it’s true. Or even that it was intended to be taken seriously. People who work in the entertainment industry often make quotable quips that are essentially jokes.

The notion that stealing the creative works of others to pass off as one’s own is “genius” or “great” is so straightforwardly ludicrous that anyone who would take it seriously could be perhaps best, and most charitably, described as a fool.

As another example, John Lennon once sang “I am the walrus”, but refused to produce a substantiating birth certificate.

Another theory on the “talent borrow, genius steals” maxim is that it is derived from a passage in this essay by TS Eliot. That passage reads

     ”Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.”

These words bear close scrutiny, because it’s clear that Eliot uses the word “steal” very differently from those who quote “Talent borrows. Genius Steals!” to justify wholesale plagiarism. The “stolen” item is “made into something better, or at least something different.” It is not retyped verbatim. It becomes something “unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn”. This line in itself clarifies that the stolen item is not a whole (like a 140 character tweet) but a part of something greater “from which it was torn.”

What Eliot is referring to is what is commonly known as inspiration or influence. Quite likely those luminaries who may have recast his words, if they didn’t intended them to be taken as mere jokes, meant the same thing.

Few creative people even claim to create in a vacuum, uninspired by what has gone before them. Dostoevsky was indebted to Dickens. Dickens to Shakespeare. The Beatles were inspired by Elvis. The Rolling Stones by Muddy Waters among other American blues artists. Nabokov owed a debt Edgar Allen Poe, as did Truman Capote. And on, and on, and on.

Among modern comedians Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks, Phyllis Diller, Jerry Seinfeld, Richard Pryor are commonly cited as major influences. But that doesn’t mean that today’s comedians will respect someone who takes a Jerry Seinfeld joke and tells it as their own. They won’t just shrug and say “Well, talent borrows, genius steals!”

Because it doesn’t. And no one possessing a scintilla of artistic or creative spark truly believes it does either.

Does Talent Borrow, Genius Steal?