If you’ve been following any of Fat Jewish’s social media profiles, you’ll know that he’s internet famous for his often brash, off-color memes about any and everything. While I was always under the impression he “curated” the best of the internet, he didn’t always attribute. That’s being called online plagiarism. This caused many of the comedians he stole from to lash out in a virtual storm of hate on Twitter. Fat Jewish says he never intentionally stole anything.
The thing about Fat Jewish is not so much his position as an individual but what he represents as a larger problem: retaining intellectual property in the digital age. It’s clear we’ve all been operating under an unspoken presumption that once something is up on the internet, it’s free for the taking. Especially if it has been posted a lot already. As Fat Jewish himself says the Internet generation understands “intellectual property is shared.” But the case with Fat Jewish poses a precarious one because he seems to be making a lot of money off aggregation alone and because the people whose work he’s been “sharing” have stood up and said they want credit for their content. He says they can have it. But a tacked on attribution after the fact does not do what an initial credit would have. Everybody knows that too.
Fat Jewish has leveraged his curation game in a book deal, a “White girl” Rosé and a now-defunct deal with Comedy Central. He hasn’t enjoyed a micro-moment in fame but instead has created a lucrative career based on Internet memes. Memes that other less-followed online creators made. Their anger may look like jealousy but The Fat Jewish uproar begs for answers to bigger questions… What role should copyright play in the digital age? How do we define online plagiarism? Can you own anything once you release it onto the Internet? Do social platforms have a responsibility to police meme and joke thievery?
Social networks certainly have a major problem to address: How to (or if they should) protect social agency on a platform designed around sharing. Twitter recently pulled stolen jokes off user accounts. But Instagram remains mute on the matter. They have been called on to ban @FatJewish and users like him and called out because they don’t make it as easy to share with attribution as Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Vine, etc. do. No repercussions have resulted for @FatJewish and no protections have been put in place for content producers. Instagram has become the ideal network for content thieves.
The overarching defense that Fat Jewish and others have used is that memes are “hard to trace.” And to be fair, in some instances that may actually be the case. If Fat Jewish took a joke from an account that took it from another account and the meme was not watermarked, any attribution would be lost by the time Fat Jewish got to it. It’s easy to see how things get lost across the digital landscape. And while that’s a good excuse for Instagram, and maybe Tumblr, pretty much any other social platform you can think of has much better ways of protecting their user’s content. Take for instance, YouTube.
YouTube is a pioneer in the conversation regarding digital ethics. From very early on, YouTube aided the music industry’s efforts to protect musicians (mostly famous) and their profits. YouTube aggressively pursues users who post content that doesn’t belong to them and/or doesn’t explicitly acknowledge that the material is copyrighted. And they’ve dedicated an entire department to doing so. And YouTube hasn’t suffered from enacting such stanch guidelines. In fact, YouTube is growing.
Though the multibillion dollar music industry spawned copyright protections on YouTube, video content was never limited to the music industry in the first place. You can find any and everything – from gruesome pimple popping to talks on Third World development. YouTube has now positioned itself (or grown into) the role of a resource, much like Wikipedia. Given that it is easy to assert ownership of your image within the context of a video, YouTube was never destined to have the same copyright issues Instagram is having with memes. BUT Instagram could take a page out of YouTube’s book anyway and protect its 300 million active users.
In the case of @FatJewish and Instagram vs. A Bunch of Wronged Comedians it seems money is playing some role. If any of the comedians who Fat Jewish has stolen from had the money that say Sony has – this conversation might not be happening. I mean come on, it’s the little guys who want the recognition for their work right? But Instagram is driven by a huge pool of users – niche celebrities, fashion bloggers, Internet goof balls and your own family and friends who you log on to see photos from. Now, if Instagram can protect the smaller influencers that are driving the conversation and trends on their platform along with mega influencers Beyonce and Kim Kardashian, they will endear themselves to the very same users who are making them a success. If they don’t instill some protections, users are likely to find somewhere else to share. There are plenty.