Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Some thoughts on plagiarism, auto-plagiarism and reference

Yesterday was a weird day on Twitter. Aaron Belz, a poet I know "from the Internet," and Patton Oswalt, who I guess is a semi-famous comedian?, got into a public fight about Sammy Rhodes, AKA @prodigalsam, who all the Twitter comedians apparently hate because he steals jokes – in comedy terms, a crime rivaled only by being a feminist, I'm sure.

You can see the case for Sammy's plagiarism, if you're curious, in visual format at the Borrowing Sam Tumblr. For example:

I don't doubt that Prodigal Sam steals jokes, with awareness or not with awareness, given the body of evidence against him. I'm not about to defend him; if anything I'd suggest he steal funnier jokes. But they made two sequels to The Hangover, I'm not the barometer of comedy in America. I just want to talk around the topic a little bit, so here are some thoughts.

* There's a bit in this Salon piece about the ethics of self-plagiarism: Is it OK to reuse the same joke formats or even just rerun the same jokes? See this example where he keeps tweeting variations on "Just realized ducks can't hug and now I can't sleep" (inserting different animals). I mean, first of all, ducks can hug:

Which is why this isn't a funny joke. (And does Nickelback even have a Greatest Hits album?) But in principle, I'm not against self-plagiarism, which, when you're aware of it, is really more of a form of self-reference, and a kind of inside joke for your longtime followers, if we're talking about Twitter. I like when poets do this too, reusing the same lines in new contexts, sometimes with slight variations. I actually tell students to do this, because often they are able to write great lines before they are able to write great poems. That's why you have to save your darlings! I.e. rescue them and put them in new poems. I do this in my poems and I do it on Twitter too. For a while I kept tweeting new variations/translations of the (in)famous Rilke line "You must change your life," e.g. "You should change your life," "You gotsta change your life," etc. I wasn't doing it in the hopes that people hadn't seen my previous tweets; it's a better gag if they had seen them. Similarly, Sammy Rhodes' animal hug tweets are actually funnier if you think of them as meta-jokes or anti-jokes. I don't know if he intended them that way of course; maybe he's too sincere for that. (His avatar has New Sincerity written all over it!)

* I feel like you could make a case that almost anyone has plagiarized a bunch of their tweets, consciously or not consciously. A couple of weeks ago I was blabbing on Twitter about the silliness of user reviews for books on Goodreads and Amazon (as expanded on here); this was part of the tirade:

Today, Teju Cole tweeted something quite similar – about as similar as Sammy R's jokes are to some of their alleged predecessors, anyway:

Notice that TC's version got wayyyy more favorites! Anyway, it's possible that he saw my earlier tweet, because he does follow me (cough, humblebrag), but I don't think he did, and even if he did, I wouldn't care that he was "borrowing" the format, probably unintentionally. I mean, he was responding to a real Amazon review! ("The Odyssey was a much better book. Skip this one if you can, you get a good summary of it in the Odyssey, it'll save you some time.") And I'm sure someone or several someones thought/tweeted the same thing about some other book before me. Thoughts, especially when limited to 140 characters, come in templates and tend to have a lot of overlap, both structurally and content-wise. Does that make it OK to knowingly steal from people and try to pass their work off as your own? No, of course not, I'm just pointing out that what superficially looks like plagiarism could easily not be.

* I remember there being a controversy when Last Orders by Graham Swift won the Booker Prize. Someone accused him of plagiarizing As I Lay Dying. Almost 20 years later I'm still astounded by the stupidity of this. It's very obviously an homage, a book-length reference to the Faulkner, an update of the story using the same form and characters. You can read and it enjoy it without knowing that, but crying "plagiarism" here is like saying Clueless plagiarized Emma. Again, I'm not saying that Sammy Rhodes' Twitter feed is full of sophisticated allusions. I never followed him but from the examples I've seen I doubt it. However, when you've got a culture that is trigger-happy when it comes to accusations of plagiarism, it's easy to miss nuance and subtlety on the level of reference/homage/pastiche. People seem especially doltish about this stuff on Twitter; see all the people who missed the barn-sized irony in the Iliad tweet above.

* For more laughs, I recommend the 3-star reviews of Hamlet on Amazon, where you'll find such scintillating criticism as "It is Hamlet, what can you say. It is what it is" and "the play, as plays go, is simply just so-so."


  1. I was just thinking about this yesterday because I saw this:

    I defended Lehrer when he was only accused of recycling, and so maybe that's why I despise him all the more now.

    But so yeah, the situations in which recycling your own work is wrong, as opposed to maybe boring, seem very limited.

    1. Hmmm how do I make the link work - does this work?

    2. Yep that worked.

      Long-form self-plagiarism seems a lot more problematic ... especially when there's intent to deceive, like "Hey, I've created new work, pay me again/more!"

    3. Also I suspect Cole was riffing off your Goodreads tweet.


  2. In my mind, there's homage, which is great (i.e. Connie Willis' 'To Say Nothing of the Dog') and then there's cold stealing. The former is great; the latter is weak and boring. If you get up at a talent show and sing a song of a published performer while others are doing original work, you better say something. You can still do the song, but you know, attribute it.

    As for twitter, I think the memespace is getting so small, it's hard not to accidentally steal. Good ideas tend to return to the shores of consciousness on the web, so it's hard to know with something like twitter if you're being influenced or not. Personally, I don't get a lot of modern American humor, but I think a lot of humor in general is in the delivery. I personally think the Eagles' line was the funnier of the two, but that's personal. When it comes to random internet chatter of <140 characters, I'm not sure there's a lot of intellectual property there to protect.

    Incidentally, I also thought your comment was funnier than the one about The Illiad.

    1. Yes indeedy to this: "the memespace is getting so small, it's hard not to accidentally steal."

      I'm always coming up with dumb puns and then realizing 100 people made the same dumb pun before me. I don't Google every pun to see if it's new, but it's a good sometimes-check to remind yourself you're not that original.

      And I totally agree about the Eagles tweet being funnier, even if I don't understand why everyone hates the Eagles!

    2. Hey, was that a Squid and the Whale reference up there?

  3. I can't tell you how many times I've searched Google for a phrase or title that I thought I brilliantly invented, only to discover 10,000 other geniuses came up with it first. We're not nearly as unique and inventive as we'd like to believe. People thought I got the title "God Damsel" from Autocorrect, but actually I came up with it batting ideas back and forth with Jill Essbaum (it fit the book, which had a character named "Damsel" who was going through a spiritual crisis). But once that Autocorrect meme came out (like two years after my book), people made their own conclusions. I'm just crossing my fingers that Microsoft doesn't publicly accuse me of plagiarism.

    I get the anger over plagiarism. I understand that comedians are under a great deal of pressure to regularly create jokes that are both funny and seemingly unique/original. Writers are under a similar pressure. I understand there's a lot of dicks out there who think nothing of trying to bank on someone else's work as their own (whether for $$ or just for attention/accolades or whatever is the going cultural/ego currency). In Oswalt's case (who I'd characterize as more than a semi-famous comedian, he's been in a great deal of television & film: Justified, Caprica, Burn Notice, United States of Tara, Doll House, Young Adult and some more popular TV shows I don't watch, like 2 1/2 men), his work has been flat out used by others trying to pass it off as their own, lesser known comedians and most strangely and what made the most press was the instance of the 2010 Columbia valedictorian in his graduation speech.

    I get why that pisses off comedians. In many ways comedians are the poets of the entertainment industry. You got your handful of Billy Collins/Maya Angelous and then a bunch of unknowns fighting for scraps.

    Then again I also have limited sympathy for comedians as a group, because so many do make their living from gross misogyny (how many volumes could be filled with those witty rape jokes?) or so vocally support the misogyny by trying to shut down the conversation by those who call it out. Yeah, I'm not the first person to have this thought--do I need to research and footnote who also has voiced this concern?

    Lately I've been thinking a lot about appropriation. When is it necessary to note such appropriation and how much unintentional appropriation we all do. What may be a clear reference to some, is not clear to others. For instance, a couple months ago Oswalt tweeted the following quote from Terminator: "Waitress brought my Burly Beef & forgot I DIDN'T order fries. Kid in next booth put ice cream her pocket. Oughta give HIM the tip." Some people got the reference and a bunch didn't. Later that evening, after hours of retweeting a series of angry & sometimes amusing responses, he stated where the quote came from. But what if he didn't? What if he felt it was an obvious enough quote that he didn't need to do so? What if he allowed thousands of his less than Terminator-savvy followers to think that was his original thought after having a less than stellar customer service? Would that have made it plagiarism?

    I think of those two British poets who were caught earlier this year flat out plagiarizing poems. Comparing all the the poems (and the sheer number of them), it seems pretty open and closed. Kenny Goldsmith's work isn't considered plagiarism because he's completely upfront about where he's getting the material. But then there's all those shade's of gray and different distinctions about using lines or structures or ideas. How much do you have to transform something before you can call it your own without having to include a lengthy acknowledgement page? If you write a poem in response to a Rilke poem that makes allusions to it, do you need to include one of those god awful epigraphs? Or call it "Poem: After Rilke"? Is it really safe to assume that the person reading your poem has read Rilke?


  4. (cont.)

    Years ago in grad school, I used a line in a poem that I first heard said by my cousin, an autobody detailer, at a family picnic. Cousin Jason said, "You can paint a turd, but it's still a turd." My sister said I should have credited my cousin in the poem. I scoffed at her remark. But was she right? I have no idea if he made it up on his own, or if the comment is a cliche among autobody detailers. I just thought it sounded funny.

    I don't have clear and firm answers. On one hand, I think my work is pretty unique, but on the other hand, I'd be lying if I denied that everything I've ever written has been built on or influenced by something that's already existed, whether it be literature, music, film, TV, current events, the cashier at the grocery store, etc. Sometimes I'm very conscious of what I'm building on/transforming, other times, not so much.

    Apologies for my super lengthy comment. It didn't seem that long when I wrote it.

    1. High five Reb, I love you even when I don't agree with you, which is not to say that I don't agree with any of this.

      Maybe most comedians can only ever aspire to be "semi-famous," like poets. I mean, who is as famous as Patton Oswalt in the poetry world? Graham Foust? Philip Levine?

      I JUST realized that the first two syllables in "God Damsel" are "goddamn." Because I'm a frickin' genius.

    2. Fun fact: Patton Oswalt is a big fan of Wallace Stevens. (He also happens to be one of the few stand-ups I actually find funny. He's one of the best.)

    3. Hmm, I'm not sure about the "famous" comparisons because the ratios are so off between comedians/poets -- like the ratio between entertainment/literature.

      I don't really have any beef with Oswalt's position and (seeming) definition of plagiarism. At the very least, I half agree with it, maybe more so. If I was Aaron's advisor, I would have advised him to respond differently than he had. He didn't do himself any favors with his responses yesterday.

      That said, it's kind of icky how celebrities with hundreds of thousands or millions of followers sick their fans after people. I have no idea who "started it," who publicly called who out first. There are a number of aspects of this feud that are unclear to me. But Oswalt didn't just respond to Aaron, he repeatedly retweeted comments from his fans against Aaron, pretty much encouraging them to come up with the "best" put down. That eggs people on to pile up on the unfortunate dude who disagrees with you and doesn't have the fan base to respond in kind.

      I assume Aaron's offenses are these summations by fans that Oswalt retweeted: " Bullshit. You wrote a blog about how great a guy was at doing something he was stealing. And then no response when truth revealed." and "You defended joke stealing for an entire day on twitter. Don't backtrack. Commit to your awfulness."

      Then Oswalt retweets somebody accusing Aaron of authoring his own Wikipedia page and now its magically being considered for deletion.

      But it's the "feminists" who lack a sense a humor and want to censor speech.

      I follow less than 25 celebrities. Fewer if you leave out famous authors & journalists. I am a fan of Oswalt's work. I've followed his twitter feed for the past year and often find it funny.

      But rousing up a twitter mob against a poet/reviewer (with less than 1500 followers) who has a different opinion on plagiarism and what constitutes a funny comedian -- I think that's a poor use of one's influence and voice.

    4. I think we agree, Reb. I couldn't keep track of the whole feud either and if it was a conversation in a living room, I probably would have sided with Patton O., but it quickly turned into a power structure thing. Plus I saw a few poets jump in at the end in a pretty innocent way and the ragey comedian mob was lighting-fast to call them "cunts" or whatever. Pretty out of hand.

    5. @Matt: I've never seen his stand-up. Maybe I'll Google some when the bad taste in my mouth wears off.

  5. I saw a feature story on T.V. recently (I think it was on the CBS Sunday Morning show) about comedians from the high days of what was known as the Borscht Belt, the hotels and clubs in the Pokonos and Catskills back in the 1940's and 1950's and maybe earlier.

    The interviewer talked with one comedian who had worked in that time and place, who told how it was commonplace for comedians to tell each other's jokes during their acts -- everyone was constantly telling each other's jokes, and many of the jokes had been around for years, since vaudeville and earlier, sometimes in many variations. No one thought anything of it, they just understood that when you're doing six or seven or eight shows a week, sometimes at multiple venues, it's easier to just draw on the general supply of jokes than always trying to come up with original material.

    He said that sometimes people in the audience would call them on it" "I heard that one yesterday!"

    ("You think that's bad -- I told that one yesterday.")

    1. Ha. That's interesting. Very Shakespearean.

      Also interesting how tiny variations can make a joke funnier. Like A/B testing. Twitter makes it very pure, too, because your voice/inflection/appearance doesn't affect it much.

  6. Re self-plagiarism, the duck tweet was itself stolen from Lauren Ashley Bishop, so while he then copied himself, the original was still a theft from another, less prominent person.

    The problem people have with Sam isn't the occasional one-off duplicate tweet - everyone does that from time to time, either thanks to parallel thinking or even accidental copying. It's the fact that his behaviour is pathological. He repeatedly copies, gets caught, apologises, then does it again. Then he claims he never copies. There is no way that kind of activity would be accepted, let alone defended, in any other art form.

    That and, for an "outsider", he has a substantially bigger fan-base than many of the people he's ripping off. He is screwing over less successful writers, and crying foul when any of them have the audacity to complain.

    1. Yeah, I get that, which is why I wasn't really writing about him, it just made me think of this related stuff and other grayer cases. The Salon article made it seem like people are complaining about his tweets on two fronts -- a, the plagiarism thing, and b, the fact that he re-uses his own tweets. (Rob Delaney has talked about doing this practice too.)

      Copying people with fewer followers than you does seem especially sucky. But so does rallying your fan base to attack someone less famous than you, as Reb mentioned above.

    2. Yeah, I'm not really defending Rhodes either. I just found it kind of shitty that Oswalt rallied his followers to attack Aaron Belz for disagreeing with Oswalt's definition of plagarism and supporting Rhodes' work. I mean, Belz wasn't the "plagiarist" -- he was just some guy who was sympathetic to him. Why did Oswalt whip his twitter mob into a frenzy over that?

    3. And I say that not really agreeing with much that Aaron was saying.

    4. I 'm definitely not against anyone reusing their own tweets - it's just that the ones he's reusing are themselves still stolen from other people. Megan Amram, for example, one of the funniest people on twitter, regularly reposts some of her earlier tweets so they can be seen by her now hundreds of thousands of followers. That's all fine. But Megan is an original; when ProdigalSam reincorporates his earlier work, he's just spreading his plagiarism further.

      I can't see anything in the Salon piece that suggests that self-plagiarism is a complaint anyone else has. It seems like Sam himself is trying to spin it that way, setting it up as a straw man so he has a few legitimate things that he can defend.

      Annoyingly (though probably justifiably) both Belz and Oswalt seem to have deleted most of their tweets referencing each other, so I can't respond to both of your comments on that. Are there links to anything, or would you be able to summarise what they both said?

    5. The salon quote I was referencing is "In a separate post, Rhodes addresses his self-plagiarism — reusing his own joke formats" -- and if you click through to the linked post, Rhodes writes "Ok so if you’ve followed me on Twitter for more than a month you’ve probably noticed that I recycle a lot of tweets and reuse a lot of joke formats. In fact it gets pointed out to me almost every day,, sometimes in ways that make me turn in to Chris BLOCK, and other times in ways that seem motivated by genuine concern." Doesn't that suggest that some people have complained about him retweeting himself, as it were, as a separate issue from the fact that the tweets might not be original? Also, as I mentioned, I've seen Rob Delaney defend the same practice, so it seems that some people don't like repetition in a feed. Delaney said the same thing you did -- the point is to get the same tweet out to more and newer followers. But I don't find that to be very interesting, personally; I was talking about building on the same joke, not just recycling it word for word.

      Unfortunately, I didn't see the argument in real time, I tried to catch up on it later, but I'm sure I missed a lot of it. Reb seems to have caught more of it. I did catch a whole lotta name-calling, but from what I saw it was only in the direction of Patton and his pals down to Aaron and a few other poets who got caught in the fray; I didn't see Aaron say anything outright hostile. Of course, I might have just missed it.

    6. Ah ok, yes. But I think that's a huge distraction from the issue. The self-plagiarising thing seems to be an issue Rhodes himself is bringing up as a criticism of him, as it's an easy one to defend. Patton and co only mention it when it's one of his stolen jokes he's then "riffing" on.

      What is Aaron's connection to the whole thing? Sorry to ask you such basic questions, but I'm missing exactly what his involvement is in it, and how he's ended up mixed up in this.

    7. This whole post is, intentionally, a distraction from the issue. I don't care that much about "the issue," I thought that was clear. Not to cheapen it, I just don't know enough about it to be invested.

      Aaron, I guess, at some point wrote an article about Sammy Rhodes' Twitter feed? A positive one? I'm pretty sure it was an older article and he didn't know about the plagiarism accusations, but I'm not an expert in the whole chronology and I don't know why it recently came up again.

  7. Could it be that ProdigalSam is an anagram of 'l Plagiarism'? ( lower case 'l' being an actual 'I' or just a letter to complete the ploy) I hope it is intentional.
    I'm sure you are aware, but you got a mention in NewYorker best books by Cole for The Self Unstable . I will be purchasing it.

    1. Wow, good catch!

      I did see it and was supremely pleased. :) Thank you and I hope you enjoy it!