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