Plagiarism or outright theft is something that gets far too little respect in digital culture—after all, just think of all the stolen memes we’ve seen over the years!
All that said, I think a couple of recent controversies surfaced by YouTube show we’re really turning a corner on this front.
The vibes in this general direction began with a video by the durability-tester JerryRigEverything (a.k.a Zack Nelson), whose joint collaboration with the phone-skin company dbrand has long celebrated the innards of phones. Turns out another company, Casetify, liked these designs enough that they decided to do their own version. Just one problem: The design had many of the in-jokes that the dbrand version had, making it a pretty open-and-shut case of copyright infringement.
It may not seem like a case of plagiarism, but the way that the deception was caught is very related to plagiarism, because of the fact that the design was filled with in-jokes and weird details that were seemingly designed to catch infringement of this nature. Turns out, it was an effective strategy!
But JerryRigEverything’s 13-minute lawsuit announcement, released on Thanksgiving in the U.S., was only an appetizer for the main course: A four-hour-long video, released over the weekend by Hbomberguy (birth name Harris Brewis), discussing the overly prevalent nature of plagiarism and outright content theft on YouTube.
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In some of the cases highlighted by Brewis, the theft was a hiccup that emerged in the midst of a long career—the case of Cinemassacre stealing a review of 28 Days Later, widely discussed in the nostalgia community when it happened a couple of years ago, is pointed out early in the massive clip. But in many of the others, it’s often the result of creation in the name of a never-ending algorithm that punishes creators who fail to produce content at a regular clip.
When you’re building two or three videos a week, it doesn’t leave a lot of additional time for research. (In case you’re wondering why Tedium has never been available in podcast form.)
The central figure of the clip, not revealed until roughly two hours in, was James Somerton, a queer commentator on popular culture who was found to be taking commentary from dozens of writers, wholesale. In one single video, Brewis uncovered 18 separate instances of plagiarism, an insane amount of outright theft of cultural opinions. We’re not talking single sentences—we’re talking major passages of books, articles, and other documentaries.
When describing Somerton’s theft of a film, Brewis described the situation as such:
He downloaded a copy of the documentary, loosely paraphrased it, and as footage for the video, he uses the same clips the documentary used of the movies it talked about. He also reuses the more pivotal interviews, adding his own titles so it looks like he got them from somewhere else.
James wants to pretend to be a scholar of film history when, in fact, he watched a documentary and is now pretending it’s his.
(Turns out, this is not the only example of this kind of documentary-remake problem in Brewis’ clip! He points to at least one other creator who does this on the regular, plus another who ripped off a Mental Floss article wholesale.)
Brewis noted that Somerton’s theft, which he took aggressive steps to cover up, was often so sloppy that at one juncture he nearly stole phrasing from an anti-gay conservative commentator, something revealed in a subscriber-only Discord channel, only to think better of it before he actually covered it.
The clip, the longest thing the Hbomberguy channel has put out by a significant margin, is clear evidence that people will engage with a single thing for hours on end if it tells a compelling story. I watched the whole thing—at first, because it was a topic relevant to my interests. But then because it was such an insanely massive clip that the endurance was necessary. (And unlike a Martin Scorsese film, you could actually take a pee break when watching this monstrosity.)
With the aggressive schedules and algorithms which favor drama and misinformation, the incentives favor plagiarism. Brewis emphasized that he was also in the position to benefit from this ugly system by announcing, near the end of the video, that he was offering any money he received for the clip’s views to Somerton’s dozens of victims.
“If this video goes up and is monetized and gets views, I have been paid—financially rewarded—for making this,” Brewis said. “I don’t find that acceptable. Especially not when the story is really about people who were never compensated for their work being stolen.”
This video, and its response, feels like an important creation in the history of YouTube and online content in general. It makes the problem approachable to normal people, and highlights the tell-tale signs of it happening, which look, surprisingly, like the linguistic version of what JerryRigEverything and dbrand saw with those knockoff smartphone skins—cheap, low-resolution versions of the real thing, with some slapdash efforts to cover up the crime.
It’s way easier to rip people off in the modern era than it’s ever been, and often the people who do it get away with it for quite a long time before they’re caught.
Of course, the really bad part of all this is the fact that so much of what is being ripped off is commentary—it’s literally someone else’s opinion passed off as the person’s own. James Rolfe of Cinemassacre probably overcommitted himself when, as a parent with responsibilities, he agreed to do another edition of his popular 31-reviews-in-31-days Monster Madness series, but he had been to some degree misled by the editor who did the writing—and it’s worth considering that Rolfe once rejected this very approach for the very reasons he got caught up in the lie. The needs of mass production, of feeding the YouTube beast, forced a situation that was easy to catch by viewers.
Often, commentary about plagiarism is seen as academic in nature, or is a discussion that doesn’t exit niche spheres like journalism. It’s no longer seen as a scarlet letter on a career—the kind of destructive situation that Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair know all too well. Benny Johnson, perhaps the best-known plagiarist of the digital news era, is even more prominent now in some circles than he was when BuzzFeed canned him a decade ago.
But Hbomberguy, someone who talks about philosophy and video games in equal measures, is not an academic in terms of his subject matter. (His last video, more than a year old, was on Tommy Tallarico, Roblox, and the art of puffery.) But he does his homework. With nearly 5 million views of his video in a weekend, his commentary on the ways that content mills and perverse incentive structures force this bad situation has already gone mainstream, and it will likely lead others to consider this issue.
I say good. We’ll all be better for having this debate.
Sharing this a little late, but a great clip nonetheless. Irish folksinger Damien Rice was playing a show in Spain, found out from the crowd that Sinead O’Connor had died, then right on the spot, worked out the chords to “Nothing Compares 2 U”, a song he had never played before, and played it in honor of her, with help from the crowd.
Someone turned HTML, the scripting language, into HTML, the programming language.
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