Spreading Like a Virus: A tricky tale of ownership and creative work
Wanna hear something strange? I have a viral video and I am not in it. I did not film the video, nor have I ever met the person in the video. But during Christmas 2015, I had a video that went viral. A mere 30 seconds long, it was seen over 15 million times within three days.
I learned I went viral when I was tagged in a Facebook post. The video had been up for less than 24 hours and had been seen 2.5 million times. I immediately recognized the image in the screenshot, but I also knew it was not me. Out loud I cried, “NOOOOO!”
My husband and I are variety entertainers. One of our proudest original creations is a jumpsuit covered in tuned desk bells. I wear the suit and play the holiday favorite “Carol of the Bells.” This routine has opened quite a few doors for us, most notably allowing me to perform live on Ellen in 2014.
With a quick upload, someone else was now being credited for my painstaking work. Even if the video was innocently made, even if she never claimed originality, the world now thinks of the act as hers. Every time we now perform it, we are seen as the copycats of our own material.
Ellen enjoyed my act, as did many of her fans. The video that went viral was a woman in Georgia wearing a jumpsuit with the same exact bells as mine, in the same exact places on her body, exactly matching my every movement. A bend at the waist, a leg lift, a head tilt. It was all there.
Friends kept sharing the link with me until they finally realized I did not find this amusing. For my husband and me, this was our worst fear realized. Even though I performed this on national TV, we truly try to protect our material for fear of people stealing it. We work hard to present unique, unusual, and entertaining content for live audiences. That is the heart of what we do. This routine took hours of thought, creativity, originality, and practice. With a quick upload, someone else was now being credited for my painstaking work. Even if the video was innocently made, even if she never claimed originality, the world now thinks of the act as hers. Every time we now perform it, we are seen as the copycats of our own material.
We did our best to squash the situation. We appealed to the poster, who refused to remove the video, publicly dubbing us “party poopers” adding #cantstopus. Twitter and YouTube both sided with us, taking the video down when we showed them our original. But, in true Whack-A-Mole fashion, the video kept popping up in new places, on new pages from all over the world.
Disheartening, too, that many established media sites featured this woman, knowing the dispute we had with her. Glamour.com even dubbed it “the outfit that won Christmas” touting “how very fun” the woman in the video was, asking “Can we hang out soon?”
I had to stop going online. My husband tried to assert our claim of authorship by saying, “Hey, this is OUR creation!” but the Internet shouted back, “Who cares?!”
“She has every right to do this,” we were told. We were insulted, belittled, and condemned. “Get over yourself!” said some people. “I don’t care who made this up, I like this woman.”
“But, she copied it!” we said.
They replied, “Well, she did a good job of copying it, then!”
Another actual response: “Oh, does this hurt? How about a congratulatory cookie?”
We felt helpless, victimized and vilified.
The Internet has an insatiable hunger for content. The trouble is, the Internet doesn’t care where it comes from, or who made it. An item online is suddenly seen as personal property to whomever claims it.
We are developing a culture of downloaders – people who consume, but don’t create, content. And the uploaders can’t keep up. When people do manage to create, there is no permanence to their hold on their creations. Without security of ownership, the creators are likely to fade away. Admittedly, I felt like doing so in the midst of all this.
Perhaps our routine is 30 seconds of fluff. And maybe it’s idiotic to commit, emotionally, to something so frivolous. But, during these difficult times, the world needs people who devote their lives to creating silly, inspirational, or beautiful things that can bring lightness, laughter, and joy. There obviously must be a reason this video went viral in the first place. Frivolity is important, and even silliness merits protection.
So, if you don’t mind, we’d like our cookie now, please.
Kobi Shaw and her husband, Steve Russell, live in a renovated barn outside Colfax. They have performed on The Tonight Show, Regis and Kelly, and Ellen. They also presented a speech, “In Praise of Whimsy,” at UW-Stout TEDx last fall. Learn more incapablehands.com.