I before E except when your jokes get stolen.

I was so close to letting this go. I may not take legal action but god damn it I’m writing a blog post to at least document the story.

Here it is.

On Oct 27 2010 I came up with an idea for a joke about “i before e” being a stupid rule. I did this because I’m a terrible speller and wordplay is big part of my Twitter feed. I researched exceptions to this rule and wrote this Tweet:


It did pretty well considering the amount of followers I had at the time. The next incarnation of the joke came in December 2011 when I created a Redbubble account and made a t-shirt of the gag.


(Redbubble is basically an online marketplace for creatives).

The t-shirt sales made me some dollars, enough to pay a bill or two. For a writer this is an exciting prospect for a web joke. It gives me hope that this skill I’ve built won’t be treated like a tissue for people to use when they want and then thrown away without care. Words can have value and power, such as “I have dream”, “Hope and Change” or “try not to pee on the carpet”. My ability to craft ideas from the English language has value and I make a living out of it.

But I digress.

On October 17 2012 the grammar website “Grammarly” (who are surely critiquing this right now) posted an image of the t-shirt with a credit to me on it with a link to my Redbubble. Legends.Image

Good on them. They shared a joke and referenced me. Totally fine as far as I am concerned. Facebook pages are about sharing things so that customers, clients, friends and family know where your interests lie. A smart idea for a company, done respectfully.

This is where it gets tricky. The success of Grammarly’s post, receiving over 30 thousand shares, meant that it was far more susceptible to web plagiarism. As I write the phrase “web plagiarism” I feel pretty uninspired to do anything about it. The benefits of idea sharing on the internet come with costs. It’s up to the individual to determine whether those costs are worth chasing.

Next I’m being informed by my dear followers on Twitter that people on Tumblr are sharing the joke without referencing me.


This one’s a little annoying because it’s so popular without fulfilling my need for validation. If I put my feelings aside though, it’s still interesting to see that this blogger is willing to post uncredited work next to a “Donate” button. Hmm.

Still, I let it all go. By this stage I had already become a writer for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Stop bringing it up, guys. Thanks. My career as a jokester appears to be working out and I have Twitter to thank. I don’t believe I would have been able to send Jay two pages of topical gags when he asked for them, if I hadn’t spent years writing internet jokes. C’est la vie.

Cut to yesterday. The wonderful writer and illustrator, Sarah Ellerton, informed me that QI (a British gameshow headed by Stephen Fry) had now Tweeted the joke without attributing it to me.

qi tweet

How would they have known though? The line had become viral and lost my credit ages ago. No biggie. Kind of cool. I write for Leno.

[UPDATE: QI got back to me on Twitter, see here]

Then these were brought to my attention.

amazon Skreened

Oh no they didn’t! *snaps fingers in a racially insensitive way*

So what started as a silly tweet became people selling my work without permission, accreditation or compensation. In a world of internet content saturation, I’m not surprised and barely inclined to do anything about it other than share the story.

What next? I don’t know. I’ve spent enough time and energy on this post let alone writing formal complaints to Amazon and the like. Perhaps I will. Perhaps I won’t. In the long term I feel that I’ll be better off just investing my brain power into more creating. That’s what I enjoy. Whinging, complaining, accusing or threatening to sue, make up none of my favourite things. What makes me happy is waking up and writing funny things. As long as I can do that and not starve, I think I can handle the odd joke being used without my credit or compensation. Then again, I could always take Jack Post‘s advice to me and “write worse things and then people won’t steal them.”

Good advice Jack.


This this blog post, the joke has been posted by George Takei, Buzzfeed and RTed by Stephen Fry. All uncredited but hey, I think I’ve won at the internet.


18 thoughts on “I before E except when your jokes get stolen.

  1. Ah, that’s the worst! It’s up to you to peruse legal action or not, but please contact/confront them.. I’d like to see them squirm..

  2. I saw someone tweet that the other day (I can’t remember who) and was going to reply with an @ reply to Stephen Fry about how he might be pleased by this, as QI once asked a question about the ‘i before e’ rule and how many variations to it there were. Of course, I had no idea you were the originator. I suppose it goes to show that we live in a world where absolutely everything is fair game, and that it’s just so easy to appropriate and reprint something without even thinking about where it came from.

  3. Great article Simon!

    This is a dubious area that often gets me thinking. I like to look at these things more holistically though – you are a creative, hilarious (and dashing) writer with great business savvy. Therefore what you do is not struggle with the ability to write jokes, but constantly come up with inventive ways to monetize them. Of which, as you pointed out, you are doing very well.

    These people will never be able to do what you do. Sure they might make a quick buck off something they stole, but they will never be able to do what you do regularly. In future, see how these other people make money off text, and next time you make a killer line, make money in the same way.

    Basically, let these things go. Once you put something out into the world, especially on the internet, it’s simply unprotectable. That’s just the unfortunate nature of the beast. Morally, you’re right. Practically, you’re f***d.

    Keep writing and creating and live prosperously off it.

    You’re doing that pretty well so far.

  4. There are variations on this theme dating back to at least 2006, but using different terms and phrases. It’s pretty slack for people to just take something they have no part in creating and make money from it, that’s for sure. But as you say, once one person uses it without reference, the snowball effect tends to muddy the water. If you can show clearly that you were the first to use/publish this exact phrase, then you may have some grounds for action.

  5. Their soft point is their web hosting. No business wants to host pirated content, so if you target their web hosts with cease and desists, things can sometimes get taken down pretty quickly.

  6. Contact them, let them know that they are in violation of IP law, but that you would rather come up with a mutually beneficial arrangement than take it to court… if they are willing to play ball.

  7. tweeting is work. no it’s not. it’s tweeting.
    writing on a bus stop is work. no it’s not. it’s writing on a bus stop.
    work is for pay. shouting in the dark is not.

    please don’t normalise litigation language. who benefits?

  8. There’s a fine line between “my stuff, you shouldn’t be making $$ without me getting my fair share” and utter douchebaggery.

    I think you stand well on the side of “my stuff.”

    To be fair, the attribution did get lost in the mists, so be gentle. But go after what’s yours.

  9. Pingback: Owning your message | The Media Bug

  10. Pingback: Viral Plagiarism: Who Owns Your Tweets and Status Updates?Controversial News, Controversial Current Events | Intentious

  11. Old News, but I’ve seen your phrase on t-shirts in at least two different mail order catalogs. For what it’s worth. I think it’s clever and I will make a note to include your name where I can. (but I’d let it go at this point)

  12. I recently saw QI where Stephen was saying that the i before e rule was no longer being taught because there are so many instances where it doesn’t work.

  13. If it’s any consolation, I came here via a search for “beige neighbour” looking for the original phrase in full. Yours was the top result. Bravo!

    I suspect some kind of feint. By someone named Leigh. Possibly wearing a lei…

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