Hey, That's My Line

From jokes about Brett Favre to South Park stealing lines, we're in a crisis of originality thanks to easy searching on the Internet, writes Ben Greenman. Whatever happened to getting credit for an idea?

11.16.10 10:42 PM ET

From jokes about Brett Favre to South Park stealing lines, we're in a crisis of originality thanks to easy searching on the internet, writes Ben Greenman. Whatever happened to getting credit for an idea?

Recently, Brett Favre met with NFL Commissioner Roger Gooddell to discuss whether or not he took pictures of his penis and texted them to Jenn Sterger, a former New York Jets game hostess. Favre, an egomaniac, became the subject of yet another round of mockery as a result of this scandal. Saturday Night Live ran a skit about Wrangler, the jeans company for whom Favre serves as a spokesman, marketing pants that let the offending organ hang loose. Concerns were raised about the skit, not on the basis of taste, but because it was relevantly similar to a Modern Humorist sketch that had run a week earlier.

This has happened to plenty of people, in one way or another. Almost 10 years ago, I published a musical about the Elian Gonzalez controversy on McSweeneys. Less than a week later, Saturday Night Live ran a similar parody. The similarities were indisputable, but as I told a reporter at the time, that’s no proof of plagiarism, even of the subconscious variety (paging Robin Williams). The same is true of the SNL/Modern Humorist case. Sometimes similar ideas spring up in two places at once, or in two places in different times without any connection between them. And even when there are connections, what of it? Take Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy,” the huge disco hit from 1978. Now listen to Bobby Womack’s “Put Something Down on It,” from 1975. Sounds like a straightforward case of thievery, doesn’t it? But now listen to Jorge Ben’s “Taj Mahal,” from 1972. There are enough points of contact to raise more than eyebrows, but that doesn’t affect the quality (good or bad) of any of the work. Everything comes from somewhere. Most seeds are hybrids. The human brain, while complex, is not infinite, and all creativity is a mix of innovation and imitation.

Thanks to places like Google, the Internet is now the equivalent of an instant patent search that allows you to search for recurrences of phrases, puns, neologisms.

With that said, though, there’s a problem, and it isn’t about Saturday Night Live or Brett Favre’s naked bootleg. It’s about the Internet, and how quickly it lets us track cases of alleged borrowing and appropriation. When Juan Williams was fired by NPR last month for what the radio network considered intemperate remarks regarding Muslims, the Internet erupted. That’s what it does. People accused Williams of racism at the same time that other people accused NPR of overreaction and knee-jerk political correctness. I didn’t want to weigh in until I had seen the actual interview—which now, thanks to that same Internet, is efficiently archived. Williams said that he’s nervous when he sees people in “Muslim garb.” I understood his point, at some level. He was saying that his perception of Muslims was permanently changed by the 9/11 attacks.

But there was a flaw in his reasoning. Leaving aside that Williams seemed to have a monolithic, almost cartoonish idea of “Muslim garb,” it occurred to me that Islamic terrorists are the least likely to dress traditionally. Their strategy, were they to try to board a plane with a weapon, would be to dress as inconspicuously as possible. I was thinking about it, so I sent something out via Twitter.

About 10 minutes later, I got an email from someone I didn’t know. It accused me of stealing the insight. I don’t know why he didn’t just tweet back or even send me a direct message. Twitter has all those features built into it, for maximum annoyance. But he chose to email.

He told me that other people online had already thought of that argument, and had even said so online. One of them, he said, was Jeffrey Goldberg, who used to work at The New Yorker, where I work: The implication, I guess, was that I had somehow shadowed Jeff, taken his idea, and then claimed it as my own.

This is idiotic in many ways. First of all, it’s not true. I didn’t see anything that Jeff wrote, and while I agree with him on this point, it’s only because he agrees with me. Second of all, how have we reached the point where the standard for a thought is chronological primacy? There are, of course, still cases where ideas move from one brain to another by way without authorization. Last week, the creators of South Park apologized for a show that satirized the Christopher Nolan film Inception after it became clear that they had pilfered a few of the jokes from a College Humor feature. South Park co-creator Matt Stone told Dave Itzkoff of The New York Times that they had run across the piece online and assumed that College Humor was using dialogue from the actual film: “It’s just because we do the show in six days, and we’re stupid and we just threw it together. But in the end, there are some lines that we had to call and apologize for.” The South Park case demonstrates how easy it is to accidentally run across an idea online, and claim it as your own, even without malicious intent. There’s no question that the Internet, which distributes an unprecedented amount of content to an unprecedented number of destinations, enables theft of intellectual property. But if the Internet can enable theft, it can also detect it. If your original content—your ideas, your jokes—gets redistributed without proper credit, it’s easier than ever to track down the culprits. Thanks to places like Google, the Internet is now the equivalent of an instant patent search that allows you to search for recurrences of phrases, puns, neologisms. Here, though, is the root of a larger issue: The cure is far worse than the disease. The Internet’s search capabilities, which permit easy detection of unoriginality, also have a chilling effect on originality.

An example: There’s a guy in my neighborhood who dresses exactly like Bruce Springsteen, circa 1975. He has the jeans. He has the cap. He has the beard. After seeing him a handful of times on the street, I nicknamed him “Born to Rerun.” It made me laugh, for a second. It was a pointless little joke, no more than that. Out of curiosity, I searched for the phrase, which I thought I had invented—or rather, which I had invented, at least for my purposes. I discovered, predictably, that the phrase has been used before, frequently: in 2003 by Entertainment Weekly, last year by a fan posting a review of “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” and on and on. I’d like to report that I don’t care about those earlier occurrences, that I brushed them off and moved on, but the fact is that I do care. It’s deflating to learn that your original idea, no matter how trivial, has already made an appearance. Before the Internet, I might have kept that pointless little joke alive in my head. It might have ripened into something or it might have died on the vine. But it would have been my tomato. Now, the process works differently. The incontrovertible proof that the phrase was already circulating made it difficult, if not impossible, for me to claim it as my own. It acquired the feel of something shoddy and second-hand, and I jettisoned it.

This is an exceedingly trivial case. I readily, happily, heartily admit that. But originality can be an extremely serious issue (the last few weeks have seen claims of appropriation or plagiarism against the poet Raymond McDaniel and the fiction writer Jonathan Safran Foer) so maybe it’s easier to illuminate it without the interference of significance. The first spark of an idea—whether a short story, a song lyric, a newspaper headline, a movie title, or a joke about an oddly dressed neighbor—is tenuous at best, and conditions need to be perfect not to douse it before it can kindle something more substantive. If the Internet moves us toward a get-there-first-or-not-at-all world (that phrase, by the way, seems all new, at least according to Google), then hundreds of thousands of newly born “proto-ideas” (1180 results) will end before they have a chance to “flower into genuine articles of faith” (9 results). And that means fewer “moronic skits” (151 results) about “Brett Favre’s organ” (4 results).

Ben Greenman is an editor at The New Yorker and the author of several acclaimed books of fiction, including Superbad, Please Step Back, and the new What He's Poised to Do. He lives in Brooklyn.