Cracked’s War on Plagiarism (UPDATED)

Let’s face the facts – plagiarism is rampant on the internet. Things are so easily reproducible and audiences so numerous that people can pretty much get away with copying things whenever and wherever they want. Plagiarism is also nothing new, it’s been around for millennia. Yet whereas before it was essentially taken for granted or existed in a totally different cultural context, nowadays it takes on a whole new and much more destructive force.

A couple hundred years ago content creators and writers existed almost exclusively as members of the upper class – people of their own means that could afford to spend their days on creative pursuits. The poor and proletariat were confined to their farms or factories and the middle class just plain ol’ didn’t exist. Presently, writing is a profession like any other. People compete to have their work published, to get their ideas to the public, and to garner an audience. And the vast majority of these people are not independently wealthy. As the internet more and more becomes the medium for this type of work, it also exposes anything published more easily to theft and to those who would take advantage of someone else’s idea to call their own.

This emerging dynamic is what makes this new type of plagiarism so problematic. There is now even a new strain of thought that everything on the internet is in the public domain and that nobody really owns any idea out there. Early in 2013 some obviously talented, yet unfortunately misguided individual got a brief moment of fame by posting a hilarious parody of chef Guy Fieri’s menu, only to have his reputation shattered when it was discovered that he had stolen all his jokes from other Twitter users. However, many also defended him, using some populist conception of fair use, and of course bringing out the tired old line that “all comedians steal.” This belief is so rampant among audiences that Patton Oswalt finally felt he had to say something and went on a totally-justified rampage against those stealing his jokes.

That brings us to Cracked.com, one of the largest comedy sites on the internet, and therefore used to people lifting all sorts of content from them. And guess what? They don’t take too kindly to it. Furthermore they don’t take too kindly to plagiarism in any form. First off, the site relies on submissions from their audience – sure they have some regular columnists and full-time funnynauts, but on any given day at least half of their content is from the average Joe (full disclosure – this average Joe included). Because of this, and probably also because they’re not run by total assholes, they have a very strict plagiarism policy where if you’re caught doing it you will be banned. It’s the internet so you can always come back under a different name, but then that involves trying to publish your work (or I guess someone else’s work) under an alias, which might work great if you’re Stephen King, but notsomuch if you’re just some random writer.

Secondly, because the site generates a ton of traffic and has articles with real information instead of just videos of people buttchugging, various sites around the internets love re-using Cracked’s material. While the vast majority usually link to the original article or give some attribution, there are enough shitsites that just outright steal. The forum attached to Cracked even has a thread dedicated to reporting acts of article theft that as of today has close to 800 replies since it was posted in 2009. Of course not all of those 800 are actual reports, but it does go to show how rampant it is. These acts of plagiarism are often completely baffling when done by low-traffic blogs with no clear commercial interest; do bloggers really think their friends will be impressed by something so obviously out of place on their site? It’s hard to understand.

More understandable, and therefore undoubtedly more evil, are those websites that steal Cracked’s and others’ content to actually make money off it. When this happens, Cracked goes to war and the results are never pretty for the other side. For instance, take Cracked columnist Dan O’Brien’s hilarious response to El Grafico’s blatant stealing of one of their articles. In the column titled, “This is Why You Don’t Steal From Cracked,” O’Brien shows why, if you’re going to steal, you should never link directly to the original images, which are hosted on Cracked’s server. A quick edit and those images can appear anyway you want them to within the thieving site’s article.

More recently, Cracked had some of their content swiped by perpetual offender the Daily Mail, a tabloid site that will literally print anything, which begs the question of why they’d have to plagiarize in the first place. Travel contributor Ruth Styles decided that rather than do some work of her own, it was easier to just steal from Cracked contributor XJ Selman, and his article on terrible tourists. Again Cracked’s response came in the form of a sarcastic piece apologizing to the Daily Mail for publishing the article before they did. As the Daily Mail isn’t a fairly unknown Mexican paper, it got considerable more press than the El Grafico response and they were bombarded with Twitter comments. Facing a heavy backlash they of course fired Styles, right? Nope, because when you’re the Daily Mail you’re reputation is already so low that if they dug up Hitler’s bones and used a puppetteer to type out a weekly column under his name, it wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow. That doesn’t mean Cracked lost of course. Presently if you do a Google search for Ruth Styles the first result is an International Business Times article talking about her plagiarism. That means if she ever wants another job, she’ll have that stink forever following her.

ruth styles plagiarism

Even more, Cracked’s war on plagiarism goes beyond their own article theft. Last year, one of their columnists, Seanbaby, wrote an article that called out Amber Milt, the style editor of Fox News Magazine for her blatant and ridiculously misguided theft from a childrens’ joke website. His column got quite a lot of publicity, mostly because Fox News is a polarizing media outlet that takes a lot of criticism over its biased and inaccurate reporting. They also at least attempt to fiercely maintain an air of credibility about them, unlike the Daily Mail. However, it’s worth noting that one of the websites to report on the plagiarism, The Examiner, failed to even mention Cracked or where the story originated from, passing their own story off as original research – which it obviously was not. This essentially places the article’s author, Lou Colagiovanni, in the same category as Milt. However, given that The Examiner is more or less an American version of The Daily Mail, these types of things are to be expected.

Unlike Styles or Colagiovanni, it appears Amber Milt had her employment terminated due to the incident, even though it was never explicitly stated. Nonetheless, she has since taken up employment at Bluefin Media as Managing Editor. However, even with her new, somewhat puzzling employment, her reputation is forever tarnished thanks to the internet, the place that once made her theft so easy, has now repaid that thievery tenfold.  A search for her name, like Styles, immediately turns up her plagiarizing past.

ambermilt plagiarism

Now Cracked has a new target, the little known British-based website WhatCulture.com. Their plagiarism is a bit different however as the site has tried to copy the Cracked model. They also allow anyone to write for them (although they don’t pay their writers, despite what their ads say). That has led to the situation where some of their writers were both signed up for the Cracked Writer’s Workshop (where people pitch articles to the site) and for WhatCulture. Two of their writers are now under scrutiny for having been members of the Cracked workshop (yet unable to successfully pitch anything there) while pitching other peoples’ ideas from there to WhatCulture. They are able to do this because Cracked is very transparent about their pitching process – anyone can join and see what’s being pitched and accepted – and Cracked articles generally take between 4-6 weeks to run once accepted. Therefore a writer from WhatCulture can lift an accepted idea from the Cracked workshop and post it to WhatCulture before Cracked even runs it. As Cracked also has a strict policy against running articles that have too much in common with already published articles, this creates quite a difficult situation for them. It’s truly plagiarism in its lowest form.

Cracked has called out WhatCulture’s thievery in passing in one of their articles, but because of the subtlety of the jab it went mostly unnoticed. Now, however, people are beginning to take notice thanks to an independently-published article by a frequent-Cracked contributor, Maxwell Yezpitelok. With help from other contributors who have been stolen from, he has compiled a large body of evidence against one of WhatCulture’s editors, Shaun Munro here. Munro’s and fellow editor, T.J. Barnard’s plagiarism had previously been brought to the attention of WhatCulture’s editor-in-chief, Matt Holmes, who has said that he has discussed the matter with both writers and considers it settled. This apparently did not mean that either writer was let go, and quite conversely, WhatCulture has continued to publish strikingly similar articles to those in the Cracked workshop since.

Of course this just points to the fact that WhatCulture, like the Daily Mail, Bluefin Media, The Examiner, and numerous other sites, really doesn’t care about plagiarism so long as their writers are giving them content somehow. They are a struggling site that is trying to make a name for itself in the vast internet sea any way it can. Getting on Cracked’s bad side might be ok for them (they’ve probably seen an increase in traffic from these claims of plagiarism) but it will undoubtedly hurt the offending writers in the same vein of Ruth Styles and Amber Milt.

While this most recent outbreak of hostilities is not an officially sanctioned Cracked battle, Yezpitelok’s article is already causing similar damage in exposing plagiarists. Shaun Munro has written for numerous websites, almost all of whom have been informed of his stealing and are now in the process of deciding whether they want their reputations tarnished along with his. Meanwhile a Google search for his name is turning up Yezpitelok’s article in the top hits, not to mention the dozens of re-bloggings that follow. It has also stirred up old acquaintances of Munro’s who are just as familiar with his plagiarism from years past and are able to bring their complaints forward once again. All in all there seems to be a very simple message: if you insist on trying to pass someone else’s work off as your own, then make sure it’s not from Cracked, and even if it’s not, Seanbaby will still find you.

9/20/13 Update

This morning WhatCulture posted a fairly lengthy apology on their website, which actually makes this author feel bad about lumping them in with the Daily Mail now. This apology did only come after several back-and-forth’s with writers from the Cracked workshop, yet Matt Holmes and Peter Willis come off as completely sincere it in and have promised a number of changes. First, both T.J. Barnard and Shaun Munro have both been suspended (although perhaps only temporarily) and Munro’s twitter account has also been deleted. Second, WhatCulture has offered any affected Cracked writer $50 recompensation if their content was stolen (a meager amount but fairly justifiable). Third, they now have a report content button on all their pages to prevent further plagiarism and have also distanced themselves from claims that they advertised paying positions that were really volunteer-based.

And so this latest battle in Cracked’s war on plagiarism appears to becoming to an end. Once again Cracked is victorious and is in the process of changing it’s motto to “Thou doth not fucketh with Cracked.”

Links to the latest battles in the War on Plagiarism:

http://whatculture.com/site-updates/whatculture-statement-on-plagiarism.php

http://srmxy.tumblr.com/post/61359614903/dear-shaun-munro-please-stop-stealing-from-the-cracked

http://www.theshiznit.co.uk/feature/stop-the-online-film-blogging-community-i-want-to-get-off.php

Special thanks to all those in the CCW forum for their updates and links which made this article possible.

11 Comments to “Cracked’s War on Plagiarism (UPDATED)”

  1. Great article on Cracked and plagiarism. David Wong at Cracked has been a great advocate of intellectual honesty. It’s obvious that he sternly rides herd on his editors and contributors, which places him head and shoulders above the majority of people in the publishing industry. What impresses me the most about the Cracked process is their requirement of footnotes — apparently a lost art among many writers these days. Footnotes are not only the way to track (heh) the intellectual process of the writer’s work, but also a way to protect the writer’s reputation. Sure, any writer is *influenced* by what other people have written, but the CTRL-C and CTRL-V process is so easy now that many lazy people take that shortcut. I think it was Mark Twain (attribution, but no footnote — sorry!) who once wrote, “I hate to write, but I love to have written.” Plagiarism is the easy way to reduce the effort and maximize the glory. Yeah, I wrote that. You can quote me.

    • Thanks man, Wong definitely deserves a lot of credit for what he’s done in terms of ensuring quality. I personally hate when articles don’t cite anything, it comes off as so lazy. Glad you enjoyed this.

      • Howdy,   Thanks for your reply. I was impressed  not only by an article that brought up the subject of plagiarism, but the information on how Cracked is fighting back — I didn’t know any of the back story. Great reporting. I think most folks don’t even think about the subject. I get really annoyed about people who keep yapping about how “information wants to be free” without thinking about the economic implications of intellectual theft. Information may be free, but somebody out there is sweating out the hours writing the articles. (Guess what I do for a living.)   I’m a big fan of Wong. He’s not only a really imaginative writer, but a great organizer. Not an easy combination. Can you imagine trying to ride herd on a group like folks who write for Cracked? (And, yeah, I haven’t gotten an article accepted, yet. Still in there, pitching, though.)   Keep up the good work. Really liked your article on the miniseries “Vikings” too.   Stay in touch.   Best wishes, Bryan  

        ________________________________

  2. Regarding your update: don’t feel bad for WhatCulture. Seriously.

    Shaun Munro and TJ Barnard were never dismissed, only suspended. They are still listed as editors on the WhatCulture website, and their extensive backlog of articles remains intact, save for the articles stolen from Cracked (that we know about).

    Not so much a case of WhatCulture realising and admitting they were in the wrong, but the editors buckling under pressure from all corners. They only retreated because they were caught out – even after the plagiarism was brought to their attention, their response was to continue business as usual, publishing further articles from the perpetrators swiped from Cracked and stating that the matter had been dealt with. This also suggests they might well have known about the theft all along – at least, their response endorsed Shaun Munro and TJ Barnard’s actions (who were surely in cahoots – and if so, how many more knew? These guys were editors, after all). It was only once Sr. Mxy compiled a detailed blog post with evidence of their thefts that they published the “apology”.

    The apology itself is superficial – it’s not linked to the homepage, and it’s not the writers themselves apologising. The money offered in damages is a meagre $50 – which in no way covers the loss in writers’ earnings for those affected, or the reputational damage incurred (as they were the ones that ended up looking liked the plagiarists).

    Judging by the experiences of the other writers you mentioned, Ali Gray and Paul Martinovic, WhatCulture has a history of shoddy business practices and a dirty reputation in the industry.

    So, no, I’m not sure this case is a victory over plagiarism and ill treatment of writers. WhatCulture is still a blatant rip-off of Cracked that privileges poorly written, clickbaity articles, and continues to profit from aspirational volunteers.

    But thanks for writing this – it’s so important to highlight these issues.

  3. Thinking about this issue lately, because of a recent incident in which an editor thought I might be “self-plaigarising”. I’ve written half a dozen commercial product descriptions for the same product (different manufacturers). Were the articles similar? Well, yes, because there is only so much you can say about the effects of UVA and UVB solar radiation on skin. What I do — and what I take pride in — is never, ever take the short-cut of cutting and pasting from one article to another. In fact, I take great pains in not re-reading my previous articles on the same subject before I write the next one. But, you get these phrases stuck in your brain and it all begins to blur. I guess that’s what editors are for — to catch writers when we begin to repeat ourselves. We owe it to our clients to be as original as we can, even if it’s a reach to find something — anything! — original to say about a subject we’ve researched and written about half a dozen times before.

    There is an entire industry of “re-working” existing articles for re-publication. Theft? Probably. It takes me about 2 hours to research and write a 500-word commercial product article. A re-write probably takes about 15 minutes. Even the plagiarism comparison software programs can’t pick up a cunning re-writer.

    So, we do what we can do. The thieves are bottom-feeding bastards who deserve to be beaten with large sausages. Aside from that, there’s nothing I can offer, exec[t” Write, do your best and screw the pirates.

    Aye, mate (which if a rip-off of a retired Royal Marine who posts on “The Mellow Jehadi”)

    Best wishes,
    Bryan

    • Yea self-plagiarism is less about intellectual theft and more about not conning someone who thinks they’re getting an original product. They’re just two different things that share a name. While plagiarism is a problem I think it’s really only an issue of character if done consciously. Plenty of people might come up with an idea they saw earlier that simply got lost in their memory, and if they use it then they should retract it but always get the benefit of doubt. Everyone mentioned in this article definitely doesn’t fall into that category though. Styles didn’t simply forget that she read a list of children’s pranks, Milt bafflingly lifted an entire article from a popular website, and Munro and Barnard deliberately stalked pitches in the writer’s workshop to pass off as their own ideas. There are definitely levels of plagiarism and these guys definitely fall in the worst.

  4. Not to bore you with a continued discussion about this subject, but it’s a feature of my work. I agree that *intention* of deliberate plagiarism is a central feature of the issue. I think it comes down to the trust between an writer and an editor. If an editor believes in the integrity of a writer, and trusts that he isn’t just goofing off (or out-right sealing from somebody else), then an occasional “self-plagiarism” can be caught and corrected. If there’s no intentional intent of fraud, then a simple correction should be easily corrected with just a little nudge and a slight blush of embarrassment. As far as deliberate rip-offs, I cannot imagine signing my name to anything I’ve stolen. But, the, I was, after all, a Boy Scout many years ago. The trick — and it’s a really important trick — is that there must be an editor who actually cares about the content of the newspaper / web site and wants to keep things honest. Which brings us back to David Wong and people like him — those who watch out for the honesty of their own writers and protect the pirates who what to feed off the original work of the people who write for them.

  5. Sorry: meant” “protect *against* the pirates who want to fed off the original work”

  6. The difference between a joke, (or article), being funny or bombing will always be timing. Must be ten years since I’ve heard a completely original joke, but thanks to comedic timing I can still laugh my arse off like I’ve never heard it

  7. Cracked has featured its fair share of plagiarized material too, just so ya know.

    • I haven’t heard of any. Cracked has a very strict anti-plagiarism policy and actually goes out of its way to police its own boards and ban anyone who tries to pass off someone else’s material as their own. However, I’d be quite interested to see any examples if you could provide some.

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