Virality. A word spell check still refuses to recognize, no matter how widely used it is now. “Viral” often refers to infection, disease. But now also refers to quickly spreading content, infectious content, if you will.
But such a word presumes that there is no control over the spread of content, that it just happens, which isn’t true for most cases. Henry Jenkins argues in Spreadable Media (p. 20) that when we share content we actively choose to spread such content to our contacts on social media, via email or even play it for someone, we carry that content outwards of our networks to other networks through sharing.
But how much choice do we really have in sharing those short funny videos for example? Can we articulate or explain why we do?
One example to measure our ability to answer such question to is the famous “Charlie Bit My Finger” video.
Back in 2007, a family in England posted the home video above. It’s a cute moment between brothers, three and one year olds. It was meant to be shared between family and friends, and it wasn’t until years later that views started doubling daily, until it became one of the most viewed videos on YouTube with more than 800 million views.
People shared the video on every website, and they shared it because people where sharing it, and so on and so forth. No one knows who was “patient zero”, probably a famous website or a media outlet, that led to the video’s outbreak.
In an interview, the dad who posted the video commented on the videos popularity.
“I had to make a decision: Is this something that we accept is us and do something more with or is it something we just park and say, ‘That’s really nothing to do with us,’ and then everybody else will be exploiting it and making money from it?”
The thing is, he didn’t realize it wasn’t even his decision anymore. The video has simple gone viral and there was no control over it. Years later in 2015, the story is still going on, and people are wondering what happened to the Charlie Bit My Finger boys.
They have found fame, YouTube revenue and became part of our culture, in a way. Time’s magazine refers to watching the video now as “nostalgic”, all based on something millions of us do everyday, record our kids doing something funny. No one can really list a formula other videos can follow to assure a similar success, it was just something that “went viral”.
I agree with Jenkins in how he explains the difference between virality and spreadability, but viral content isn’t necessarily commercial content desperately clutching to the advantage of public participation, even if that is the case lots of times, it’s only because when it works, it really does get uncontrollably viral, and there’s no explanation for it except that everyone thinks it’s “interesting” whether it is a toddler biting his brother’s finger, or a Korean pop song.
If your 2012 revolved around trying to get Call Me Maybe out of your head, you’re about to be reminded of how catchy this song was. Being good or bad isn’t even relevant at this point, the song was everywhere and so were an endless stream of parodies.
What allowed these parodies to survive is the “fair use” argument against the artist/label’s copyrights, they were commentaries on the song and in my opinion did more promotion than the label could have ever done on its own.
Parodies aside, one YouTube channel did a remix of the song with Obama’s real speeches. Real as in his voice is actually his voice, even though he may have not said “ripped jeans skin was showing”. Let’s watch:
Baracksdubs is a YouTube channel that is dedicated to creating remixes of presidential speeches to voice and mouth lyrics of pop songs, sometimes you’d find Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton featured in a couple of videos but they’re primarily Obama. The creator of this channel, Fadi Saleh, goes through what must be hundreds of these speeches looking for words, parts of words and sometimes potential parts of words to create his collages. What he creates is this whole new production that doesn’t really relate to neither the song nor to Obama.
Wouldn’t there be at least 4 big-picture copyright, at least brow-furrowing cases here?
The answer is: No.
Baracksdubs started around three years ago, and giving that it still exists and creates new content gives more weight to what Lessig is calling for in the book Remix; a breathing room in copyright regulations sets our culture for more creativity.
For the example above, Carly Rae Jepsen herself faced copyright infringement claims herself so it might even be difficult to pinpoint what an “original content” is here. As for the Obama side, Baracksdubs actually celebrated with a Facebook post sharing an article in which Obama was asked about the Call Me Maybe clip, to which he replied:
“I have to admit, I’ve never actually heard the original version of the song. I saw this version where they spliced up me from a whole bunch of different speeches that I made. They kind of mashed together an Obama version of it.”
“An Obama version”!
it went on to create a brand for itself, media kept up with new releases like original music. In a way, he created a stand-alone brand from mashing two things up in a creative and intriguingly accurate way that will probably open doors to even more versions of content.
Here’s a couple more for fun:
There comes a time in every creative person’s life when they start making professional work, and usually right before that is when they get an important sentence repeatedly knocked into them by their bosses, contracts or lawyers: Don’t Steal Other People’s Work.
Don’t copy and paste, don’t rephrase or reshape, don’t even think about any other type of similar work while you’re working. It doesn’t matter if you mean to or not, your life as a creator will be over if you even come close to it.
But the question is: is this possible?
Scenario A: A designer is quickly approaching a deadline to hand in a banner and inspiration just doesn’t want to make an appearance. Our designer goes online, searched for similar banners to what he’s doing and tweak somethings and goes to sleep happy.
Someone finds out or recognize the original work and bam; our designer is in deep trouble.
Scenario B: A designer is working on a banner design. He has an idea, tries it and is instantly happy with his work, he knows it’s going to be a hit. It just feels right.
Someone recognizes that his work is a copy of a 1980 ad and bam; our designer is in deep trouble.
Are they both plagiarists?
The argument is a tough one, designer B is being a human being with a memory that works, that’s all he did wrong. Isn’t that what brains supposed to do? absorb information and recall them when needed? He stored something he glanced at years ago and recalled it when he was looking for idea, same goes for music, books, stories,,,etc
But then again, a work that isn’t originally the artist’s is a work stolen. You wouldn’t want to see another version of something you created attributed to someone else. And there’s no way of knowing if the person actually intended to copy or not.
In that way Michael Bierut makes sense of calling himself a plagiarist, and consequently we all are. We are plagiarists for dressing the way we dress and for writing the things we write and for saying “this sick beat” (It’s copyrighted by Taylor Swift. True story).
As someone who writes for a living, this thought scares me. And now I’m looking for software to validate that any words I type (or ideas?) is a brand new invention that no one in the entire world, since the beginning of time has reached before me. Because I can’t afford being sued!