Spend more than five minutes on Twitter and you are likely to stumble across a spat between two users over the origin of a joke. This much-loved pastime has become the topic of international debate this week, as Twitter has started deleting stolen jokes on the grounds of copyright infringement.
It all started when freelance writer Olga Lexell alerted Twitter to the fact that several other accounts had pilfered her joke and reposted it as their own. The gag in question was weak at best (“Saw someone spill their high end on the sidewalk and now I know god is on my side”) but Lexell’s argument was solid; as a freelancer, her words are her livelihood. She stressed in her complaint to Twitter that her jokes are her intellectual property, and Twitter reacted by deleting the duplicated content, replacing posts with the message; “This tweet has been withheld in response to a report from the copyright holder.”
That might have been the end of the matter, had late night icon Conan O’Brien not been accused of exactly the same offence. In a lawsuit filed on the 22nd July, it is alleged that four jokes O’Brien made during monologues on his show this year were in fact lifted near-verbatim from the Twitter account of writer Robert Kaseberg. O’Brien’s production company have stated they “firmly believe there is no merit to this lawsuit.”
It does, however, raise the question; when does a tweet become your intellectual property? How specific does your observation or selection of words need to be before it becomes more than mere coincidence? After all; plenty of people have gone for the low-hanging comedic fruit when it comes to public figures like Caitlyn Jenner and Kanye West. Does that make each poor-taste remark yours and yours alone? Or, once you’ve pressed ‘Tweet’, does it enter the public domain?
“The question is not: Are Tweets Copyrightable,” says lawyer Brock Shinen. “The question is: Is This Tweet Copyrightable. The copyrightability of Tweets is not dependent on the fact that they are Tweets. Rather, it is dependent on the analysis of the Tweet in question.”
A number of users are outraged that plagiarised puns are the focus of such scrutiny by Twitter and the press, when bullying and shaming are still such a prevalent problem online. And now that Lexell and Kaseberg’s cases have become widely shared, there will undoubtedly be an influx of jokers reporting copyright infringement of their own content. “Admittedly, there are other more pressing concerns for Twitter to fix, including the problems of harassment and abuse,” writes Luke O’Neil in Dazed, “and the odds of Twitter’s team being able to handle and accurately parse a significant volume of requests like this is highly suspect as well. Nonetheless, it’s a start.”