How the internet gets people to plagiarize each other

How the internet gets people to plagiarize each other

It should be noted that none of these dogs are guilty of plagiarism. The internet is full of terrible corners, but none are as skin-crawling as what you see when you open a new account on TikTok. The app’s freakishly personalized algorithm gets better at knowing what you like the more you use it, so as someone who’s had a TikTok account for nearly four years, mine’s full of cats, hair tutorials, and 15-year-olds with mental health concerns who will grow up to be successful stand-up comedians.

An unsullied For You page whose only knowledge is that you are human will serve you a disorienting combination of two things: hot girls’ butts, and advice on how to steal other people’s viral video ideas.

Why the butts are there is self-explanatory (they get the most views). The latter phenomenon, however, reveals a much darker side of the human condition. What they’re offering are “tips” or “hacks” on how to go viral on TikTok, which is embarrassing in itself but even worse in practice: titles range from “ How to Grow Your Account to 1k Followers in 1 Week, ” to “10 Video Ideas Anyone Can Use, ” or “ How to EASILY Produce Video Ideas for TikTok.” That last one gives the following advice: “Find somebody else’s TikTok that inspires you and then literally copy it. You don’t need to copy it completely, but you can get pretty close.”

While the creator behind it is condoning pretty sleazy, algorithm-brained behavior, I have to appreciate his honesty about a practice that has plagued the internet since it’s existed: plagiarism, both the intentional kind that can fall anywhere on the spectrum of “pretty shitty” to “actively evil,” and the kind you do when you’re making content in a system of increasingly lucrative rewards for stealing successful people’s stuff. Though plagiarism is arguably most prevalent on TikTok, it’s even harder to police the plagiarism that happens between different platforms.

Brenden Koerner is used to people using his work as source material. This is typically a good thing: About once a week, he’ll field inquiries from producers hoping to interview him for a documentary or adapt one of his books into a film or a podcast. If they option one of his works, he’ll get a cut of that sale. Earlier this year, the bad kind happened: Someone published a podcast based exclusively on a story he’d spent nine years reporting for The Atlantic, with zero credit or acknowledgment of the source material. “Situations like this have become all too common amid the podcast boom,” he wrote in a now-viral Twitter thread last month. This podcast series is a shameless rip-off of my @TheAtlantic story from last April. No credit is given and the creator did zero original reporting. He even mispronounces the main character’s name through all 8 episodes. (It’s “kuh-SEE,” not “KEY-see.”) — Brendan I. Koerner (@brendankoerner) April 11, 2022 Amidst the growing thirst for captivating or sensationalist narratives, several true crime and history podcasts have been accused of plagiarizing written articles without credit over the past few years. Koerner has had this happen to him several times. “If something’s easy or free to access, there’s maybe a general assumption that it’s free to use,” he says. “There are a lot of people who’ve had their hard work repackaged for profit, and I fear it’s ultimately going to be a net negative for the whole ecosystem of people who create and tell stories.”

Plagiarism, it should be noted, is perfectly legal in the United States, provided it doesn’t cross the (often nebulous) definition of intellectual property theft. Movies, music, or works of fiction have robust legal protections against this (recall the zillions of lawsuits between artists for stealing each other’s samples), and Koerner’s Atlantic story is protected under the law as well (in works where the originality or artistry of the author is sufficiently evident, courts will side with the creator ), but it often isn’t worth the time and money to pursue legal action.

Yet the definitions of what constitutes IP get murky quickly. You can’t copyright a dance or a recipe or a yoga pose , for instance, and it’s really hard to copyright a joke. You also, for obvious reasons, can’t copyright a fact, which means that in industries where IP law can only do so much, social and professional norms dictate your reputation: journalism, comedy, and academia, for instance, fields in which plagiarism is the among the most cardinal of sins.

So what of […]

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