How the internet changes content

I love the stories, jokes and amusing articles that get circulated around the internet and the fact that the same jokes resurface time after time. But what I hate even more than that is the way that the content of these stories gets changed, the authorship gets modified and we lose sight of the provenance of the thoughts. The net result of content circulating on the internet is that the author often loses control over what happens to their carefully crafted words, loses all rights to their intellectual property and never gets any compensation for the repeated use of their ideas. But I guess that is just the price we have to pay in return for the ability for all of us to transmit vast quantities of information that we are entitled to distribute.

OK, so getting off the high horse of content theft, here are some of the best examples of the way distribution of things over the internet has changed the content. I am sure that there are more- in fact there are probably entire web sites devoted to the subject, just as there are to cataloguing acts of stupidity (Darwin Awards), urban legends, virus hoaxes etc etc. I simply present some that I have come across.

The most famous example of the misappropriation of authorship is probably the article ‘Sunscreen’. It originally circulated on the internet in 1997 as the graduation speech given by Kurt Vonnegut to a high school. It extolled the virtues of living life to the full and reminded us of the imprtance of using sunscreen to protect our skin. The words were so effective that they were used as the lyrics to a song, cunningly titled ‘Sunscreen’. All of which is fine, except for the fact that Kurt Vonnegut was not the author of this particular article. Presumably the orginator of the e-mail chain, or someone involved in it, thought that the actual author was not famous enough for people to forward the message to all their friends. Or maybe there was another reason, but whatever the reason Mary Schmich must have been pretty miffed that the piece that she wrote for the Chicago Tribune was now circulating the world many times over, with someones elses name attached to it. At least the lyrics to the song were correctly attributed, so not all was lost. I am not the first person to note this- we are all treading in dangerous ground by perpetuating the myth, but here is someone with a fairly complete history of the story.

The next example is one that I liked so much that I even posted it to my collection of jokes: Called ‘A revocation of independence‘ it is a list of what will happen because the US appears to have considerable difficulty electing a President (think ‘hanging chads’ in 2000). There was a canadian equivalent of this, when the result of the election in 2001 was announced (correctly announced too) within hours of the polling booths closing, but the british one is IMHO funnier. The premise of the joke is simply that the former ‘troublesome colony’ like an unruly teenager doesn’t really know how to govern itself, so the Mother Country is going to reclaim what was lost, and reimpose her rules. The same joke, with a few subtle changes, reappeared after the 2004 US election when the rest of the world was quite simply dumbfounded that a population could re-elect someone who, in terms of foreign policy, appears to be a complete buffoon. There is a politician in England called Boris Johnson, who held in the same regard as George W Bush, the only difference being that Boris is probably not destined for higher office, rather he provides huge amounts of amusement when he attempts to host comedy quiz shows such as ‘Have I Got News for You‘ or the Official HIGNFY site. I have no idea if the respective career paths of these politicians is a reflection of the relative intelligence of the two populations (but I rather think not) but back to the two versions of the same joke: Being someone with a background and history of living in the UK (though not so much since I have had a choice in the matter, but that is another story) I could fully see the merits of some of the points raised by the Revocation of Independence, I just couldn’t see the same joke being quite so funny 4 years later.

The final example is also something that I liked so much that I posted it to my web site; it is called ‘A Canadian Apology‘. When I received the text it was attributed to Rick Mercer who is a comedian in Canada most famous for the comedy special ‘Talking to Americans‘. For several years I thought that this was correct, but now, thanks to the wonders of YouTube, you can see the original video from the CBC show ‘This Hour has 22 Minutes‘. And what becomes immediately apparent is that the presenter is not Rick Mercer, rather it is Colin Mochrie. I have no idea why the original distributor thought it necessary to change the author, because in America and the UK Colin Mochrie is more famous than Rick Mercer, on account of the fact that he appeared on the improv comedy show ‘Who’s Line is it Anyway?’ There is a possibility that Rick Mercer was the writer and Colin Mochrie the presenter, but it is not possible to work that out, and why would the writer give up such fantastic material to someone else? I just don’t know but the mis-attribution persists.

And then comes the second piece of internet corruption: The text that circulated the internet is not the same as the original video. Someone, somewhere decided that they knew better than a professional writer and they would edit the content to make the joke ‘better’. There are two possibilities that I can see here:

  1. The editor was watching the show and tried to transcribe the words and got it wrong. Look I am trying to be generous here, no I don’t believe it either, but we have to include it as a possibility
  2. The editor genuinely thought that they were smarter than the original writer

Given the arrogance (and anonymity) of the average internet publisher, I am going to go with #2. And this is a real shame, because there are, IMHO, a couple of cracking jokes that were missed out from the text and it would have been great to read the original as it was intended to be. But then I like seeing Shakespeare done with the original words, rather than someone trying to adapt it. So maybe I am still out there on the ledge.

I guess that the final action that I should take after making all these points is to take down the various articles that I make available via my web site, on account of the fact that now that I know the copyright of the material I am actually breaking it. In my defence I am trying to provide the correct history and provenance of the jokes, articles and text; I am pretty sure that won’t stand up as a defence in court, but I’ll cross that bridge when the lawyers come.

One Comment

  1. The Apology to America was written after Rick had left 22 minutes. I can’t remember exactly by whom, but I think Paul Mather, Luc Casimiri, Peter Mcbain, Mark Critch and Kevin White were the staff writers that season and I remember it was a joint effort but I couldn’t tell you who wrote which line.

    Mark Farrell


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