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.
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.
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.
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.