If you’re a creative person, YouTube is the place to be. However, what do you do if you feel like someone is copying your work? They say imitation is the highest form of flattery, but sometimes this isn’t always true. Where is the line between being inspired by someone and copying them? TenEighty investigates whether originality is dead on YouTube.
In April, Casey Neistat uploaded a vlog titled Short Skirts and Rip Off Artists, where he voiced his frustrations about people who recreate work without giving credit to the original creator.
“Let’s talk about copy-cats. Let’s talk about rip-off artists. People who copy your original ideas and then pass them off as their own. People who hide behind the idea that they were inspired by your work but actually just steal it wholesale,” said Casey. “I believe in inspiration. My work is inspired by filmmakers that I look up to, and if you look closely you can see that inspiration in my work. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about theft.
“The thing about being original, about original ideas, is that it’s about looking internally and finding ideas there,” he continued. “The thing about theft is that you cheat. You just look at what someone else is doing and just say ‘I’ll just do what he’s doing and say that’s my own idea’.”
Through this video, Casey inadvertently started a community-wide debate centred around the topic of inspiration. He posed an array of thought-provoking questions: Is there such thing as an original idea? Where is the line between being inspired by something and copying it? And how can you determine the difference between inspiration and a rip-off?
At the time of upload, many people across social media speculated that Casey’s frustrations were aimed at Jack Harries.
Jack had begun a daily vlog series titled The Good Collective to document the formation of his new company, a path Casey had taken a few months earlier. Two days into the series, Casey uploaded his video; following that, Jack tweeted that the series was “on hold”. Two months later, and The Good Collective is yet to return.
Furthermore, Casey thanked a commenter who was “pissed off that Jack keeps copying him”.
Many overlaps in subject and style are evident when comparing his videos to Casey’s. Examples include a video Casey made in 2012 in which he surprised his girlfriend in South Africa, juxtaposed with Jack’s video from last year (which went viral) where he surprises his girlfriend in Australia.
While the actual action of surprising their significant others isn’t being called into question, watching the videos back to back does raise questions about the choices Jack made in terms of shots and accompanying score. In the description box of Jack’s video, Casey is credited as the inspiration behind it. But in many of the discussions and debates that arose after Casey’s video – such as this one that emerged on Reddit – not everyone feels that crediting someone in the description justifies how similar the videos are.
While there is of course the chance that the similarities were merely a coincidence, it seems unlikely. Is Jack actively copying Casey? Or is it a case of a young kid struggling to find his own creative identity and accidentally walking in the same footsteps as his idols?
Jack has always credited Casey as a huge inspiration; going so far as to make a video titled Words Of Wisdom: Casey Neistat in which he interviews Casey while in New York. Has Jack just not found the right balance between admiring someone’s work and re-creating it? Isn’t this something that all creative people need to learn how to do?
Many other content creators have joined this debate. In a video response, Ben Brown explains his own experience with creativity. He believes that his creative side was suppressed at school and because of that, unlike many of his peers, most of his childhood and early adulthood was spent on athleticism.
“I’m sure I speak for many people when I say this, but most of the time seeing someone’s photos, videos, art, listening to their music, drama, acting, any creative industry is often the spark that is needed to introduce that person to becoming a creative person,” he explains. “There is always going to be that initial inspiration that sparks your interest in creating content in the first place. So this ‘wholesale theft’ of style that Casey talks about is very natural, I think, certainly when you’re starting out.”
Ben goes on to describe his own ‘spark’ moment, crediting GoPro wizard Abe Kislevitz as the person who inspired him to explore his creative side. Then Louis Cole introduced him to vlogging – and he admits he actively mimicked Louis before finding his own style and identity.
While Ben does consider being an inspiration for new vloggers as a compliment, he recognises that repeatedly imitating a style and then monetising that content is a problem. “If you want to get into a creative industry it’s your obligation to be unique. And when it comes to an industry that is monetisable like YouTube, it’s even more important that everyone has a respect for everyone’s original content.”
Lucy Moon also touches on the importance of respecting fellow creators in a video response. “I have seen so many big creators almost perfectly emulate the style of a smaller one and then not credit them,” she acknowledges. “These bigger creators still make amazing content but they are not crediting those that they are inspired by.”
Lucy started watching YouTube videos when she was 13, and notes that she was heavily inspired by the music video-making culture. “I would post links in the description to it, because that’s what everyone else was doing,” she explains.
“As the music video community died out and I started watching these much bigger YouTubers, I realised that people weren’t giving credit where credit was due,” Lucy continues. “From the age of 15, I had this idea that we were supposed to hoard these ideas like shiny things.”
In the comments under Lucy’s video, Sammy Paul gave his opinion on the topic in terms of the growth of the platform. He writes, “YouTube has a massive culture of copying. I mean look at tag videos, draw my life, challenges, etc. As a medium, going in with tried and tested video ideas seems to be a lot of people’s approach.”
When ‘tag videos’ were at their popularity peak, they were a great way to both draw audiences to your own channel and to send your audience to other people’s. It’s not as if each person who partook in a tag claimed that it was an original idea, but rather would do a nod to whoever tagged them and then tag others, which organically grew everyone’s channels.
Now that YouTube has transformed into a competitive game it seems that for a lot of creators the objective isn’t to nurture the community but rather hoard the numbers for themselves. For example, nobody tagged anyone in the ‘[YouTuber] tries [country]’s candy’ trend, but everyone seemed to do it.
Instead of the creator shouting out who they got the idea from, as Lucy observed, the new trend seems to be ‘just do it and hope the title brings in views’. Is this trend, and others like it a form of copying? Was it okay in the original version of a tag because credit was being given? Or, is the whole idea of a tag video a rip-off in itself?
In March 2014 Cherry Wallis, who has just under 200,000 subscribers, uploaded a video titled Awkward Accidents. In this video she discusses various awkward moments that happen in everyday life – such as walking down the street and accidentally brushing hands with a stranger, or in the worst case scenario, grazing someones ass; a fun and #relatable video.
Then in May of the same year, popular US vlogger Jenn McAllister, who has just over 2 million subscribers, uploaded a video with the same title and included two anecdotes that were almost verbatim copies of Cherry’s. Instead of claiming to be inspired by Cherry, Jenn actively hides the fact that this idea was not her own, and most likely banked on the probable reality that their audiences don’t overlap too much.
Unlike that of the Casey and Jack debate, this conflict was pretty much swept under the table. Sure, the people who are members of both audiences brought it to the community’s attention, but it didn’t spark an elaborate or controversial discussion.
In his video titled Who Inspires You?, Jack Howard brings to light a previously untouched-upon aspect of the inspiration and copying debate that seems to be unique to just YouTube. “I’m very influenced by YouTubers all the time,” he says. “My friends and also people that I watch on YouTube that I don’t know personally, but would love to. That’s the great thing about YouTube, isn’t it? That you want to be mates with the person that makes the stuff, whereas when Spielberg or Christopher Nolan or Tim Burton makes a film, you don’t just go ‘ah, I just want to be mates with him’.”
This seems to be the foundation of the issue. It’s okay for creators to pull from various ‘offline’ places because they aren’t personal. PJ Liguori isn’t the first person in the world to make up monsters out of inanimate objects or animals. But, because his inspirations are pulled from things and not people, it seems more acceptable. While his characters in Oscar’s Hotel are his own, it’s not as if the core story or way it was shot is revolutionary – it’s been tried, tested, and succeeded.
With YouTube, a specific and tangible person that viewers feel like they know is now attached to a style, shot, music, or topic and that’s why it seems like an invasion and a con. While there are absolutely examples of straight up copying, examples such as PJ show that ‘originality’, which Oxford simply defines as thinking independently and creatively, is achievable. It’s more that where we draw inspiration from has become more personal and closer to home and that’s what makes it feel like a cheat.
Everything is borrowed and inspired by something else, but carving out your own identity and style is what makes certain YouTubers original. It isn’t always as simple as ‘you copied my idea’, as sometimes it’s okay to do that, just as long as you make it your own.