Over the last few years there’s been quite a few interesting (or boring, depending on your patience) debates about the plagiarism of jokes on Twitter and Facebook.
On one hand, you can argue that no-one really “owns” a joke. Jokes have always belonged to the people. People tell each other jokes and change and embellish and improve them as they go along. In the case of 99% of jokes people have no idea who originally came up with them, and quite rightly they don’t really care. When a man tells a friend a joke in the pub he doesn’t pause, explain the origin of the joke and make sure that whoever first thought of it is credited. And at the end of the day it’s only a joke; it’s not someone drunkenly screaming state secrets in a crowded pub.
On the other hand, on Facebook and Twitter, jokes are a form of currency. On Twitter in particular, where the one-liner is king and where a good, short joke can get thousands of retweets and hundreds of new followers, it’s very frustrating when people steal your joke and pass it off as your own. I’m not talking about people coming up with the same joke at the same time as you (which happens constantly, particularly in reference to news stories) or repeating a joke that they’ve known for years where the tweeter has no way of knowing who originally wrote it. I’m talking about people deliberately stealing your work and passing it off as their own.
As a writer who has been clogging up The Internet for well over a decade, it’s curious to see what has happened to some of the things I’ve written. In 2002 I started a page on my website called Sad Jokes. The idea was to take the traditional format of jokes, such as a Knock Knock joke or a Doctor joke but give the joke a logical, cold, depressing punchline. For example:
Man: Doctor, I’ve broken my leg.
Doctor: I’m afraid it is a very bad break. You will never walk again.
I can’t pretend that I’m the first writer to try to subvert jokes or take established comedy tropes and turn them on their head; but at the time I felt like I was the first person making this specific type of “sad joke”. Who knows, maybe Kafka or Bernie Winters beat me to it?
I enjoyed writing the jokes and added more over the following months. When I wrote my first novel in 2006, I included some of the jokes within it.
Here’s a photo of my book! With the jokes in it!
And of course, the inevitable compliment soon followed, in that I started seeing the jokes appearing (uncredited) on various websites and forums. In 2007 they appeared on the notorious Sickipedia website as German Jokes with a few additional jokes that were nothing to do with me. I didn’t really care. People were enjoying the jokes and no one was pretending that they had written the jokes themselves.
To be honest, as with most stuff on my now-generally-defunct website, I forgot about the Sad Jokes. Until a couple of weeks ago I noticed an account on Twitter called Anti-Joke Cat. It’s a popular account with over 170,000 followers. The jokes within were essentially the same format as my sad jokes. So what. That didn’t bother me – you can’t copyright a format. But then I noticed that some of the jokes were very similar indeed to the jokes on my website. For example:
Which is almost exactly the same as this joke of mine.
And that annoyed me. Since I’m currently taking a break from Twitter and I noticed that Anti-Joke Cat also has a Facebook page, I left the cat a comment on Facebook noting that his joke was clearly “inspired” by my own jokes, and left a link back to Sad Jokes. I didn’t expect a reply. I didn’t get one. But I checked Twitter a few days later and saw that whoever is behind Anti-Joke Cat had clearly seen my link to Sad Jokes. Because they’d visited the page and nicked a joke of mine from there. Word for word.
What’s doubly annoying about this is that at the bottom of my Sad Jokes page is a link to my Twitter account, so the Anti-Joke Cat could easily have credited me for the joke but deliberately chose to pass it off as their own joke.
I have no idea who is behind the Anti-Joke Cat twitter account. I doubt they see what they are doing as malicious or wrong in any way – and they are probably right. They’re tweeting fairly harmless jokes. I doubt they make any money out of the account and probably just enjoy the dubious ego-massaging pleasure of having a very popular Twitter account.
If you think I’m making a fuss about nothing, you’re probably right. It’s not Watergate; it’s just someone nicking my jokes and passing them off as his own. And as I wrote at the beginning, people have been swapping jokes since before the pyramids were built. In the great scheme of things, it means nothing. In the less-than-great scheme of my life, it doesn’t mean very much. The people who enjoy Anti-Joke cat’s account and retweet him/her certainly don’t care where the jokes come from, and this whole blog post feels like a man joylessly stamping on someone else’s fun (my favourite hobby).
The irony, I suppose, is that whilst I love writing jokes and I like making people laugh, I tend to take life very seriously. When it comes to my ego, I have almost no sense of humour. I struggle to laugh when I feel wronged or slighted and generally get bitter when I see people succeeding unfairly. Even if it’s a fucking unfunny cat. I don’t expect the cat to be unmasked and then marched into Twitter jail for 25 years of hard labour. In fact, I don’t expect anything to happen. Still, it’s good to write an irate blogpost from time to time – if I am annoyed at anything, it’s less a plagiaristic cat and more the fact that it’s nigh on impossible to create a viable career out of words written on the Internet. And I can’t directly blame a cat for that.
Underlying all this is a debate about jokes and the Internet and who owns words anyway in a digital age. And it’s a debate I’ll leave to people with more brains and energy than I’ve got. It’s late and I’m getting angry about a cat nicking my jokes. It’s probably time for bed.
Well, the unsightly minions of Twitter have been hard at work declaring war on Anti-Joke Cat, which has elicited a reply from Mr Anti-Joke Cat himself, in the form of a series of DMs to me. Here’s what he has to say:
“Hello, Sir. Firstly, I would like to say that the first time I’ve heard of you was this morning. Secondly, I regularly check what people are saying about me and DM my followers quite often. Whilst looking through these tweets, I saw a few people mention you and this alleged plagiarism. I read through your blog post and I understand fully the frustration you feel, as tweets regularly get “stolen” from me on my personal account. I am one of many anti-joke accounts on Twitter and I would like to draw your attention to @AntiJokeApple and @AntiJokeJamal, both who have a larger following than me. I created a couple of my own anti-jokes for this page (all of which these two accounts copied), but the rest of them came from my only source anti-joke.com. Now, as I understand it, people post their own’ anti-jokes to this page, a bit like Sickipedia. There are several variations of the same anti-joke and looking at your Sad Jokes page, many I have seen before, even if they differ slightly. I don’t know if someone has taken your jokes and posted them on this anti-joke website or it is merely coincidence, but I did not take them directly from your website. Also, it was only the one joke that was word for word and that was potentially yours. But as I said, they’re all on anti-joke.com. I hope this has relieved some of your hate towards me, I am just an 18 year old boy doing something rather unproductive with his spare time. Regards, Anti-Joke Cat.”
To which I replied, also by DM:
“Hello there. I certainly don’t hate you. I don’t even dislike you. I’m just annoyed that my jokes are appearing uncredited on your Twitter. I appreciate that you’re only 18 and you’re just doing this for fun. I’m now aware that there are lots of other anti-joke Twitter accounts. And I understand that most of those anti-joke Twitter accounts just take material from the anti-joke website and use it. However, you have to take responsibility for the jokes that appear on your Twitter feed. Saying “I took them from another website” isn’t really a good response. You got yourself over 170,000 followers by posting other people’s jokes. That’s not a great thing to do. A lot of people will assume you write those jokes yourself or that at the very least your followers submit them to you. It seems to me that unless you wrote the joke yourself or know for sure who wrote it (and credit them) then you probably shouldn’t put the joke on your Twitter. Because the likelihood is that you’re ripping someone off, and that isn’t a nice thing to do.”
So, the upshot of it is that as I suspected, Anti-Joke Cat isn’t a criminal mastermind, he’s an 18-year-old guy with too much time on his hands. However, he’s not totally harmless. He’s an 18-year-old who has accrued 170,000 followers on Twitter by taking jokes from a website (anti-jokes.com) and passing them off as his own. My own feeling is that he should stop using other the jokes from anti-jokes.com because the likelihood is that most of the decent jokes on that website have been stolen from professional comedians or other people’s Twitter accounts. It’s interesting to note that Anti-jokes.com hosts banner ads, so they’re happy to have make money off the jokes, and they are also selling an anti-joke book (which I suspect contains at least a handful of jokes that I’ve personally written).
On a personal level it’s odd to think that the jokes I wrote 10 years ago now appears in a mutated form across The Internet and seem to have generated hundreds of thousands of followers for the Twitter accounts that deliver jokes to the public. And on a wider level, it’s interesting to see how quickly a joke can be divorced from its original author and claimed as a kind of public domain material that anyone can use. I suppose that as soon as my jokes appeared uncredited on Sickipedia back in 2007, the cat was out of the bag. People were inevitably going to spread the jokes and no one would give a damn about who originally wrote them. And I don’t blame people for that. Let’s compare jokes with recipes. If I find a good recipe online, it’s rarely credited to anyone, and if I share it with friends, I don’t do an exhaustive search to find out who originally wrote the recipe. I just share it. (Although if I were to set up a dedicated recipe Twitter account, I would probably make some attempt to find out who originally wrote the recipes rather than passing them off as my own). Still, unless you’re a professional writer or comedian, no one really cares or minds who originally wrote a joke. Most of my favourite jokes are old Jewish jokes that have been told a thousand times by a thousand different people.
In terms of the Anti-Joke Cat, I feel silly making a fuss about something as minor as stolen one-liners, but at the same time I know people on Twitter who would sell their mum into slavery for 170,000 followers, and he’s managed to get an awful lot of followers and influence by a) lifting jokes straight from the anti-joke website b) turning a blind eye towards the fact lots of those jokes are stolen from other people and c) not making it clear that he hasn’t written the jokes himself. I hope he has a think about what he is doing.
Well, I’ve had further communication with Mr Cat. Here’s some more DMs from him.
“Hello, again. I have now read your blog update. Believe me, I never in a million years expected it to get this big. I remember being excited one day in college when it hit 6,000 followers. I don’t even have an excuse for what is essentially plagiarism, all I can say is, “Welcome to the internet of today.” There are all sorts of quotes/jokes accounts on Twitter, all of them copying jokes from various websites, mobile phone applications and other people. One notable example, @sickipediabot (Not affiliated with Sickipedia, has gained over 500,000 followers by simply posting a selection of jokes from Sickipedia, none of them accredited to the people who posted them to, or to the original authors. And like you stated in your post, it’s very unlikely they even know who the original authors are. There are several accounts with over 1,000,000 followers on here, all posting unaccredited jokes and quotes purely for RTs. I am just one tiny little fish in an ocean of plagiarism. I do disagree that a lot of people would think I write these, even though I have written a few. I feel that I am unfairly being singled out when there are hundreds of others with even more followers doing exactly the same. Mind, they probably wouldn’t have even replied to you the first time. And even people with fewer followers do it. You see a joke on Sickipedia, and within an hour or so, that same joke is all over Twitter, with them effectively taking credit for it. I think most people know it isn’t their own jokes though, and dismiss it. The rule seems to be that if you aren’t a professional comedian, it doesn’t really matter. The chances are, if you try to come up with something original yourself, someone, somewhere has already thought of it. You seem like a genuinely lovely fellow and I’m sorry if this has caused you some frustration.”
Not mollified by his flattery, I wrote a slightly pompous reply:
“I don’t think you are being unfairly singled out. You are being singled out because I found my joke on YOUR account. Not someone else’s. I’m aware that there are plenty of other accounts doing similar things, but it just happened that I found my joke on your site. Your argument seems to be “a lot of other people do it, so why shouldn’t I?” which is quite a weak argument, to say the least. As for the idea that if you come up with something original, it’s most likely already been done before… sorry but no. There’s a difference between being inspired by other writers and simply stealing their work. Amazingly, as a writer I do sometimes come up with ideas or jokes that no one has done before, which is what makes it very frustrating when someone steals my work and passes it off as their own. My suggestion would be that you try doing something useful. Try writing something for yourself. Try building something you can be proud of. Try coming up with a clever, original idea. And if you can’t think of something clever, original and unique, come up with a better excuse for ripping people off than “Everyone else is doing it.” You are not everyone else. Take responsibility for what appears on your Twitter.”
To which Mr Cat replied:
“I originally got the idea from the ‘Anti-Joke Chicken’ meme. I suggest you have a look at it. It’s completely normal nowadays for these memes to be turned into Twitter accounts. I know it’s frustrating when you think someone has stolen your work, but that was not the case. I think of Anti-joke as a resource and don’t think I am doing anything wrong. Therefore, I shall be continuing with what I am doing. If I had bought their book which they sell for $9.99, and wrote ‘All jokes taken from the Anti-Joke book’ in my bio, would it be acceptable then? Under your views, it should be, as long as I credit the author/s of the book and even though they didn’t originally create the jokes.”
And I chipped in with:
“Of course you’re going to continue what you’re doing. You get lots of attention whilst making almost no effort. That’s your choice. But please don’t say you haven’t stolen my material when my joke appears word-for-word on your Twitter account. There’s nothing I can do to stop you taking other people’s material and I doubt you’re going to stop. You seem to think it’s acceptable. You could at least have the decency to delete tweets that you KNOW are taken from other people, but you don’t seem to care how or why the tweets appear on the anti-joke site, as long as the retweets keep flowing for you. That’s your choice.”
It’s exciting doing battle with a cat.
AMAZING UPDATE 3:
I then asked Mr Cat why he runs the account:
“I’m slightly irritated but more than that I’m puzzled. I’m puzzled as to why you run the account in the first place, especially since, as you have said, you know how frustrating and irritating it is when someone steals your jokes. And you’ve already stated that there are lots of other accounts doing exactly the same thing.”
He replied, purring:
“As I’ve already said, I never expected it to get this big. But I was simply trying to make a Twitter account for the Anti-Joke Chicken meme. However, all of the desirable @ names were taken and thus, Anti-Joke Cat was born. I don’t know who creates the jokes I use. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t think they ‘belong’ to anyone. It’s not like they’re copyrighted.”
“In my case, the joke is copyrighted. It appears in my book, published in Britain in 2006. My main argument with tweets is that I don’t mind someone using a tweet of mine as long as they credit me for it. In the case of the Anti-Joke website, they seem to go out of their way to remove credit from the jokes. They do this so that they can then claim they “own” the joke, so they can then sell books full of the jokes and sell advertising space on their website. You may or may not make money out of your Twitter feed (170,000 followers will be very tempting to some advertisers) but you’re happy to use the jokes from the website, despite knowing that most of them rip off other people.”
He meowed in reply:
“I may have made the odd ‘quick buck’ from it, but that’s all. I don’t like doing sponsored tweets because I know how much they annoy my followers. I think you’ve rounded it up very nicely in your blog post and it’s now time to put this rather silly issue to bed.”
Rather exhausted by his “I-know-this-is-wrong-but-I’m-going-to-do-it-anyway attitude” I felt I had to make one small point before I unfollowed him.
“It’s not the most important issue in the world, but it’s not silly. It’s about plagiarism. But you’re not going to stop and that’s it.”
So Mr Anti-Cat has now deleted the tweet that copies mine word-for-word, but has said that he’s going to continue tweeting jokes he finds on Anti-Joke.com, despite knowing that they are mostly stolen from other people, because he likes doing it. Fair enough.
Of course, during the course of the day I’ve found myself slightly irritated by the attitude of Mr Anti-Joke Cat, but I still maintain that it’s hardly the most important issue in the world. It’s a tiny mote of irritation in my eye. In some ways what’s interesting to me is that someone can build such a huge following on Twitter simply by copying and pasting jokes from a website, without doing anything creative or writing their own material. I think as much as anything else, my encounters with the Anti-Joke Cat illustrates a certain generation gap. I’m 37 years old. I grew up in a largely pre-Internet age, where text (whether it be a joke, a recipe or a short story) did not change hands quite as freely as it does now. It was an age when publishing something involved putting it in a newspaper or book or magazine, and those publishers would then have to take responsibility for what they wrote and couldn’t easily publish someone else’s work as their own. I assume, perhaps naively, that when you write something, whether it is on The Internet or in a book, that it belongs to you. Whereas Mr Anti-Joke Cat is 18 and has probably never experienced a time when the Internet wasn’t there. He has grown up in an age where if you like a piece of text, you copy it and bung it on Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr and soon it belongs to everyone. He’s young and I’m older. I could get angry about his attitude, but I suspect I’d be an old man shouting at the sea.
As a nice postscript to this blog post, here’s a joke posted on the Anti-Joke Cat twitter feed an hour ago, after we had finished DMing each other and nice Mr Cat had agreed to delete the tweet that was copied word-for-word from me:
And here’s a joke from Sad Jokes, written 10 years ago.
Let me take a moment to revisit Mr Cat’s lovely words from his DM: “I know it’s frustrating when you think someone has stolen your work, but that was not the case.”