One of the cardinal sins among professional comedians is the stealing of jokes, but this sin become amazingly prevalent in the era of social media. It has never been simpler or easier to take someone else's content and purport it as your own. While this a pretty well-known risk of doing basically anything on the internet, the stakes change dramatically when someone starts making real money off of thievery and plagiarism.
That's what Joel "The Fat Jew" Ostrovsky is finding out right now. Ostrovsky is something of a social media superstar, with 5.2 million followers on Instagram. This social media success has lead to a great deal of real world success, as Ostrovsky got a modeling contract, launched his own brand of wine, got a book deal, signed with Creative Artists Agency, and was tapped to make a comedy pilot for Comedy Central. He also had deals with various brands to feature them on his Instagram account at thousands of dollars a pop.
Now parts of Ostrovsky's strange little media empire may be falling apart. Ostrovsky has long been accused of thievery and plagiarism, but the news of a Comedy Central pilot seemed to push other denizens of the internet over the edge. Comedian Davon Magwood wrote an open letter to Ostrovsky accusing him of stealing jokes. Writer Maura Quint penned a similar letter. Soon many other comedians piled on with other instances of theft. Splitsider.com has a great summary of the controversy with a Storify of many examples of Ostrovsky's plagiarism.
Soon after came news that Ostrovsky's pilot at Comedy Central had been canceled, and that an endorsement deal with food delivery service Seamless had ended. (Both Comedy Central and Seamless have stated that the deals ended long before the controversy reared up.)
Whatever the fate of Ostrovsky (and, with his other various deals still intact, he'll probably be fine), his case brings to mind one of the more subtle nuances of how content on the internet gets created and shared. Basically, the line between sharing and stealing is growing thinner and thinner, even as that line is becoming greater and greater in importance.
Buzzfeed and other aggregator sites like ebaumsworld.com and 9gag have long been accused of building success by simply collecting and publishing other people's work. Even internet-content-behemoth Reddit, whose users often like to claim the site is where internet memes and ideas begin, is positively festooned with content created by people other than those who post it. But here's the small but massively important difference between these sites and people like Ostrovsky: the real problem is not that people are sharing content that is not theirs. Sure, it's annoying, but that's just the way things are now. We live a remixed, sharing-based culture, and digital content is far too easy to pass around. (In fact, some digital content is intended for sharing by authors who simply want credit or their work.) The real problem lies entirely with authorship and attribution, and being absolutely sure creators get the credit they deserve.
The aggregate sites mentioned above like Buzzfeed are usually in the habit of providing links to the original content creators. Tumblr, a site based entirely on endless loops of content sharing, has some form of crediting and attribution of original authorship baked into it. These practices aren't perfect, but they are absolutely necessary to keep cheap hacks like Ostrovsky from reaping the benefits of the work of others.
I don't know if laws will have to change in the future or if we'll simply have to shame those who don't give credit where credit is due, but I do know that if we don't change things from the way they are now, the future doesn't look like much fun, because it will be Ostrovskies all the way down.