Thoughts on the Plagiarism is Bad Project

A while back, myself and two collaborators started an account called @PlagiarismBad. (Background posts:  1 ,  2 ,  3 .) Things have evolved since we started it, and it seems like a good time to take a step back to see where we are.

What’s the Point?

This is a question I’m hearing both from my collaborators and from people we list. (Not so much from our fans.) I think there are three reasons for this project to continue: education, shaming, and inoculation. I’ll expand on each of these.

Education — A lot of people don’t understand that plagiarism is wrong, and they don’t understand in particular that copy/paste tweeting is plagiarism. So by shining a light on this practice, we are helping to end that ignorance. And it is clearly working. There have been many, many cases of people saying, “I’m sorry. I had no idea I shouldn’t do that. I’ll delete those posts!” And we take those people off our lists.

We are also helping to educate the general twitter population about how incredibly widespread the plagiarism problem is on twitter. There are more than 4,700 people on the main tweet thief list now. Twitter lists only allow a maximum of 5,000 names, so we will have to add a second list soon.

Shaming — Initially, the main point of the project was to shame tweet thieves into stopping this particular behavior. In a social network where “Reporting” people apparently has no impact whatsoever, this is probably the only way to combat the problem. By putting people on a list, we embarrass them. And we put everyone else on notice that certain people are thieves, so those other people may shun them.

There is plenty of evidence that this works. People react strongly to being listed. They argue they are not thieves. When we show them evidence, they either slink away, or switch to the “so what? who made you boss?” argument. The only people who seem to think what we are doing is a waste of time are the tweet thieves. The people who create original tweets seem to really appreciate what we are doing.

Inoculation — I’ve created an app that lets people easily block everyone on the tweet thief list. It also can periodically update those blocks so that as new thieves are added, they will be blocked as well. This effectively inoculates people from having to look at stolen tweets. That was one of my main personal objectives of the project in the first place. I found it embarrassing that I was following thieves and favoriting and even retweeting their stolen tweets. With the automatic blocking, I really don’t have to worry about that any more.

People may think that it also protects their tweets from being stolen. Unfortunately, this is not really the case. There are any number of ways that a thief you have blocked might see your tweet. They might see it being sent by another thief. Or they might pick it up from your FavStar page. Or perhaps your tweet was so good that it made it into a stolen-tweet-compilation site. (Yes, these exist. There are several. And most thieves believe that copying from these sites is not plagiarism, in the same way that ripping off a drug dealer isn’t a crime, I guess.)

Twitter’s Terms of Service

It is quite clear that Twitter (the company) could not care less about tweet theft. You can report people, and Twitter will do nothing. There are massive, verified (“blue check”) accounts that do nothing but post stolen tweets. There are so many that we actually made a list of those accounts (and a handful of other accounts that people are invariably shocked to learn are chronic thieves). Nonetheless, there are two places in Twitter’s terms of service where tweet theft is forbidden: the copyright rules, and the spam rules.

Twitter’s terms forbid you from posting content to which someone else owns the copyright. Whether tweets of words fall under this rule is a matter of debate, which I will cover later. However, most of the pictures you see on twitter (except selfies and foodies) are protected by copyright, and those are pretty much never owned by the person posting them. If you removed all the copyright violating pictures from twitter, you’d basically have no pictures on twitter (except pictures of faces, flesh, and flan). So it is pretty obvious that twitter does not take this service term seriously. But it’s in there.

The spam rules are written in a fluid way, listing many things that might make twitter consider you a spam account. One of the things explicitly listed is tweeting other people’s tweets and pretending that you wrote them. This is the key reason my collaborators and I believe that tweet theft violates Twitter’s terms of service. Because the terms of service says it does. It’s a pretty compelling argument. However, as with copyright violation, there is no evidence of Twitter caring the least bit about enforcing this either.

Twitter only seems to deactivate accounts that follow/unfollow too fast. Other than that, it certainly appears that they completely ignore their own terms of service. I wonder whether Twitter’s legal counsel knows this. It seems unwise, but I’m not a lawyer.

Copyright vs. Plagiarism

A lot of people get wrapped around the axle of whether plagiarism is illegal under copyright law. But really, it doesn’t matter. Plagiarism is wrong. It is unethical. It is immoral. Taking someone else’s words and passing them off as your own is stealing. You shouldn’t do it. It doesn’t matter whether it is illegal. It is wrong regardless of whether it is legal or not.

Okay, so that said, is it illegal? As with many legal issues in intellectual property law, the answer is a mix of “it depends” and “nobody really knows, because it hasn’t been to court.” For plagiarism of tweets to be illegal under copyright law, two things would need to be true. The tweets would have to be copyrightable, and the copying would have to not be “fair use.”

Some tweets, like “Damn it’s cold” are not entitled to copyright protection under the law. Some tweets, such as short poems (Haiku, Senryu, “six words”, etc.) probably are entitled to copyright protection. Songs are entitled to protection, and 140 characters is probably enough to convey a melody in solfège. A single joke tweet, which is mostly what people plagiarize is probably not. However, a whole timeline of jokes certainly is. And we have seen accounts that do exactly that: tweet everything another account has ever said. That’s clearly a copyright violation in the USA. (“In the USA” is an important qualification, because every country has different rules and judicial precedents about copyright law.)

So the vast majority of the plagiarism we flag on the account is not copyright violation, because the tweets cannot be copyrighted. But it is still plagiarism. And that’s the whole point.

The account isn’t called “Copyright Violation is Bad.” It is called “Plagiarism is Bad.”

And so…

The fight continues. My collaborators and I (and just to be clear, they are doing all the work; I just set the thing up and wax poetic about it here on my blog), are going to keep educating, shaming, and inoculating. And soon the list of tweet thieves will hit 5000 people and we will have to start a second list. Sigh.