Stealing Is Stealing, Even on Twitter

How long until something as ephemeral as Twitter is respected as a protected medium for creation? This may all sound overly dramatic — we're talking about where a fake Guy Fieri menu came from — but the boundaries of ownership do matter.

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Does anyone own a joke on Twitter? It might not be one of the great questions of our age, but it is one buzzing around the social media sphere today. ("Social media sphere" is a pretty awful phrase, I know.) And, like so much in this tattered world, it's all Guy Fieri's fault. The irradiated TV chef has long been an object of Internet ridicule, but more stringently so in the months since his Times Square restaurant Guy's American Kitchen and Bar opened to scathing reviews. The jokes about Fieri's ridiculous dish names and calorie-laden, flavor-blasted recipes seemed to reach their zenith yesterday, when a programmer named Bryan Mytko sent out the following tweet:

The fake menu he linked to quickly went viral, getting links from respectable places like Slate and from respected celebrities like Anthony Bourdain. Passed around on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook, Mytko's menu became the meme of the day. Trouble is, it wasn't his menu.

Though it took a while to come to the broader Internet world's attention, many of the jokes on the fake menu were instantly recognized by the people who initially made them. Popular "weird twitter" users, chiefly @a_girl_irl and @DinkMagic, noticed that most of the phrases in the fake menu were lifted directly from jokes they had made last year. They were justifiably upset, and called Mytko out on the plagiarism. Mytko later gave them credit in a brief tweet, but did not take the menu down or add any attribution to the image. He claimed he hadn't known that the jokes weren't original, as it seems he didn't create the menu himself, but rather posted it for a friend named Pauline Vassiliadis. That part of the story gets convoluted, but what is clear is that jokes were deliberately passed off, by Mytko or Vassiliadis or both, as something original when the majority of them were certainly not. Were that to happen in probably any other medium, it would be an easy outrage, an obvious case of someone caught shamelessly straight-up stealing. But because it was on Twitter, many people have been shrugging their shoulders in response.

In a post praising the fake menu, Gothamist acknowledged the stealing aspect but waved it off, saying "we can live with that, what with the exquisite execution." Both @DinkMagic and @a_girl_irl have been involved in back-and-forth fights on Twitter with users who think they're overreacting, arguing that because there is some "different text" it's ultimately not plagiarism. Others assert that because Mytko and Vassiliadis put the design work in to make the menu look authentic, they were simply improving upon the joke, the suggestion being that @a_girl_irl and @DinkMagic and others who had material "borrowed" are simply upset that someone made their joke better than they did. While the original joke makers certainly have their supporters, there's a surprisingly vocal contingent of people who are far more eager to defend the easily looked at thing that's cobbled together from other sources than they are to defend the originals, scattered and arguably strange as they are. It's a frustrating indication that we still haven't figured out Twitter proprietary rules yet — nor have we for Tumblr or other platforms where one can create content but also easily pass others' work along.

The problem is, this kind of thing happens all the time. During the flurry of Super Bowl live-tweeting a few weeks ago, the well-followed fashion site Refinery 29 tweeted a joke I had made earlier almost verbatim, but without credit. Well, there were a few slight tweaks, but it was, at root, the same (admittedly silly) joke. As I don't follow Refinery 29, I didn't notice until a few friends and Twitter followers alerted me to the great injustice. I exaggerate a little when I say "great injustice," but my sense of outrage was certainly piqued that night. (A few Super Bowl beers may have encouraged my strong reaction.) Someone was taking credit for something I had said and there wasn't all that much I could do about it. I replied to Refinery 29 and said "Hey, that was my joke," and after a short exchange they deleted their tweet and gave me credit, whoever runs the account explaining that a friend in the room with them had read my joke out loud and the Refinery tweeter had assumed it was original. (So they were plagiarizing their friend!) That was the end of it, oh well, no big deal. But, oddly, it still stung. The idea that something I wrote, however brief and tossed-off it was, could so easily be stolen. And that when called on it, the perpetrator could just casually say "Oh, oops." Because it's Twitter and it doesn't really matter.

So I can, through that admittedly non-dramatic experience, understand why @a_girl_irl and @DinkMagic (et al.) are so frustrated. It's a helpless feeling, knowing that your words got ganked but that if you get as upset about it as a "regular" comedian or writer would, people will think you're being silly, ridiculous. Because it's Twitter. We're running a bit behind, as always, in giving the Internet credit for being a viable, and thus protected, creative space. Hell, there's still a common perception that magazine writing is definitively better than online material. 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? 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? Right now it seems only to be considered on a scattered case-by-case basis. And maybe the real truth is that Twitter itself owns everything we put out on the site. But somewhere down the line we'll hopefully get to a point where one person blatantly ripping off another person's work on platforms like Twitter is met with as much disdain as the Jayson Blairs or Carlos Mencias of the world. Even if it's not for money, even if it's just on Twitter, it's still the same thing.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.