Twitter has given birth to a new breed of pithy jokes and comedy, from six second Vines to edited videos or pictures with only a few words.
One successful new Twitter account that has been set up in recent weeks is Medieval Reactions (@MedievalReacts) run by 19-year-old Cathal Berragan, otherwise known as @CathalUK. At the time of writing, the account has 235k followers, having only posted its first Tweet on 16 March 2015.
The account uses medieval imagery to create memes reflecting modern life. It is brilliantly original, however there is a troubling culture of plagiarism on social media and, a simple search on Twitter revealed around 30 accounts that were using Cathal’s material within days of him setting up the original accounts. Whilst some have added their own captions to the images, the majority have not just copied his idea but stolen his Tweets wholesale.
One such account, @MedievaIProbs, has more followers than the original- 245k at the time of writing- and began using Cathal’s content on 22 March. Before this date, the account used to upload content relating to men’s fashion. Another, @MedievaI_React, has 226k followers and several more have followers in the tens of thousands, as Twitter users are unable to tell the difference between the original and the thieves.
It all seems grossly unfair but the question is: is it unlawful and can Cathal do anything about it?
A Breach of Copyright?
There is no copyright in an idea. As the Court of Appeal stated in the Opportunity Knocks litigation: “If the general idea which underlies or forms the basis of the work has alone been taken then there will be no infringement”. However, in this case, the thieves aren’t simply copying the ideas, they are wholesale stealing Cathal’s Tweets.
Cathal doesn’t own the copyright in the pictures himself. Copyright in old works such as these will have expired many years ago and, therefore, people are free to share those various medieval works*, like the ones that Cathal has used. However, you can own the copyright for a literary work.
Cathal’s hard work in pulling together the right medieval paintings and making the final joke through relating them to modern day words and colloquialisms is surely protected by copyright.
In our view, the thieves are in breach of Cathal’s copyright. If they were to go further and use that copyright to exploit other commercial opportunities, he may well even have a significant claim for damages.
Twitter’s own rules state: “Certain uses of copyrighted material may not require the copyright owner’s permission. In the United States, this concept is known as fair use.” The site says that whether or not an unauthorised is deemed “fair use” will depend on a number of factors, including whether the user has added something to the original work and if they are using it commercially, whether the work is factual or fiction, how much of the work has been copied and the effect that copying the work has on the value of the work.
In the UK, there are some permitted uses of copyrighted work and “fair dealing” relies on some of the same factors as those above and asks the question: “how would a fair-minded and honest person have dealt with the work?”
Since Cathal has had numerous Tweets copied in their entirety, without anything new being added, and his writing is creative and not factual, he has a strong argument that at least some of the offending users should be suspended from the site as a result (and pay him compensation if he ever sued …).
So, if you do have a great idea, how can you protect it on Twitter?
Have an identifiable profile and make sure you own the rights
Twitter has a policy against impersonation accounts. However, the account must “portray another person in a misleading or deceptive manner” for it to be deemed an impersonation. This appears to be largely reserved to protect real people and companies. Twitter does permit parody, commentary and fan accounts, so long as the profile picture used is not the same “trademark or logo of the account subject” and the name of the account is not the same “name of the account subject without some other distinguishing word.”
A handful of the copycat accounts have indicated in their profiles that they are a “parody” (and one even links back to Cathal’s original account) however this is not clear from any of the usernames. The average Twitter user is unlikely to take the time and care to review an account’s bio to check whether a Tweet comes from a parody or an original account. It is the use of the same profile photo and a similar username that always causes confusion and these accounts still appear misleading.
Other accounts have gone further in their attempts to gain credit for Cathal’s work. In some cases, they have stated that they are the original in their bios, in order to deceive users.
Cathal’s problem is that he does not own the copyright in his profile photo- it being a medieval painting. This means that the copycats have been able to use the same image, confusing users, and Cathal has no right to demand a takedown of the copycat’s profile picture. Cathal may have been better places using an image which he could have called his own- perhaps an amended version of a medieval painting, together with the wording from one of his own jokes. If he had done so, then he could have demanded Twitter to remove any profile pictures that copied this.
Stand up for your hard work.
In any event, we do believe that Twitter would consider suspending these accounts for breaching Cathal’s copyright in general. There is nothing wrong with using Twitter’s rules to stop others benefitting from your own hard work.
If Cathal is able to identify the users who are ripping him off, then he is also entitled to enforce his rights in his local courts or the local courts of those users. That is a drastic step but, where there’s a large commercial value in a product, then such steps can be worthwhile.
Gain gravitas and credibility.
Cathal has recently added the words “The Original” to his account and has had supportive Tweets from other influential users. He may wish to look into getting his account verified. Twitter are protective about giving out their blue ticks, however they have verified humour accounts in the past – including the dubious @TheLadBible.
Twitter craves to support creativity and great ideas like @MedievalReacts deserve to be protected.
To follow the original Medieval Reacts account go to @MedievalReacts. Perhaps Block or Mute all the others.
* UPDATE – We are informed that the majority of the images used by @MedievalReacts have been digitally prepared by organisations such as the British Library. This makes things not quite so simple for Cathal. He is in fact therefore in breach of the licences for use of such images by using the images without attribution for commercial use. The points in the blog remain (at least for other users) but Cathal’s use of copy and paste would perhaps put paid to him complaining about others copying and pasting!
 Green v Broadcasting Corp of New Zealand  2 NZLR 490 at 498