Everyone knows plagiarism is wrong. But on Twitter, it’s quickly becoming the norm.
This was the case last weekend after Beyoncé gave birth to Blue Ivy, the singer and Jay-Z's new daughter. While more than 196,000 people cracked jokes and shared their best wishes on the microblogging platform, Washington Post reporter J. Freedom du Lac, couldn’t ignore the rampant copying and pasting—without credit—that was taking place.
“What's w/ all the Twitter plagiarists?” tweeted du Lac shortly after the news broke about the baby. “Check out all the people tweeting the same thing (w/o credit).”
That “same thing” was a variation, if not the exact same version, of the following joke: “Congrats to Beyoncé and Jay-Z on their daughter Blue Ivy. Since she'll never have to work a day in her life, they should've named her Lay-Z.”
Over the past two days, that exact same joke was tweeted more than 1,900 times, according to statistics from Topsy, a social media search engine. And of all those messages, only 45 people decided to give the original tweeter credit.
According to Topsy, that person is Shaun Watkins of Auckland, New Zealand.
“You know you've made it when someone copy and pastes your tweet and theirs becomes a Top Tweet,” tweeted Watkins after seeing that his message had been plagiarized. He also tweeted a screen grab showing at least three other Twitter accounts who tweeted his joke without citing his account.
Each of those accounts had the joke retweeted more than 100 times each. (Twitter’s public interface makes it difficult to count retweets beyond 100.)
Twitter makes it easy to give someone credit by using the “retweet” button on its website and official apps. But not all Twitter clients support retweets. And people who see a joke elsewhere—for example, on Facebook or email—may well repeat it on Twitter without realizing its origin.
While Watkins may have a legitimate gripe about his tweet being stolen, was he really the first person to come up with its punch line, “Lay-Z?” Well, that’s where things get a bit tricky.
On May 18, comedian and Family Guy writer Alec Sulkin tweeted the following message referencing rapper Jay-Z: “‘I've got 99 problems and I'm not dealing with any of them.’ (Lay-Z)”
That message was retweeted by more than 100 different accounts, including @BestAt, a three-year-old account that retweets funny messages to more than one million followers. But did Watkins see it there? As of today, Watkins follows neither Sulkin’s account nor @BestAt. So is it safe to say that his joke is truly original?
Joke thievery is a problem that predates Twitter. And as has long been the case, there is just no way to tell.
A truly original idea is a very difficult thing to prove, especially on the Internet where things are changing every second. And there’s always the possibility that someone just had the same idea, as was the case with design student Jonathan Mak and his iconic Apple illustration.
Still, that doesn't mean you should give credit. “Lay-Z” is hardly a work of comedic genius, but Watkins’s tweet, if it was truly an original, deserves proper credit.
Photo by duncan