A Beginner’s Guide to Patter Theft or Why I Started a Magazine Like it’s the 90s
At the risk of sounding like a big self-absorbed moan-fest, I’m going to prefix this by saying WELCOME. WELCOME ONE AND ALL to my big self-absorbed moan-fest.
My name is Michael and The Verge called me ‘The Man Who Won The Internet Three Times’ in 2014 due to me churning out useless bits of internet fodder for myself and the world to enjoy and hate in equal measure. I’m sorry, everyone. Sometimes those things are popular and, more often, sometimes they’re not. I am undeserving of any plaudits, pointless or otherwise, because I just make the rubbish that’s in my head and, if the wizened words of internet commentators are to be believed, I am why the internet is cancer or something.
I regularly bang on about ‘patter theft’ on Twitter. Sometimes just for laughs, sometimes with valid irritation, sometimes with aimless fervour. Recently, however, I’ve received up to two and a half emails about my definition of patter theft, with some commentators confused as to why this is so irksome to me, particularly when the content I, and others, define as ‘patter’ is often something built from someone else’s work.
What is patter theft?
As creator of a lot of useless shit, I’ve had a lot of it ‘patter thieved’, i.e. my work stolen without credit. An example of this is a site I made called Slug Solos which featured popular guitarists in the middle of solos, pulling the most terrified faces. I replaced their guitars with slugs to match the look on their faces. IT’S HILARIOUS etc.
This was very popular on the internet and was shared approx a lot of times by various people and huge news sites and I’ll keep bringing it up with turgid frequency.
Like illnesses, there are gradations of severity in patter thievery, but the way I define it is that it’s the wholesale copying and sharing of an individual or individuals’ creative work without adaptation or manipulation that either maliciously or mistakenly fails to cite the originator.
The difference between patter theft and memes
A piece of work or an idea or a term or a turn of phrase that transcends its origins and merges with the ideas and cultures of others, passing through the fingers of multiple creators becomes a meme. Adding the Impact font to an image of a cat isn’t a meme, but that aesthetic basis being shared and built upon IS a meme. Something going viral on the internet does not make it a meme. Shoving my fucking slug photos on a site without citing a source isn’t a meme, ya prick.
The difference is that memes evolve and adapt throughout their lifespan. If someone was to create their own slug guitarist photo, and someone created several more off the back of that —the idea is on its way to becoming a meme; despite its one creator, it then belongs to the masses.
The difference is that when no more are being created, it’s just a selection of work by one person. There is a sole originator, not a collective of creators unified by its idea.
Another daft waste of time I’m responsible for is Ignore Hitler, a month-long project from 2012 in which I added superfluous and ridiculous Hitlers to the OMGPop Pictionary-esque game Draw Something (an idea that, in 2012, seemed like viable comedic fodder, but leaves an utterly rancid taste in my mouth now). This encouraged other people to do the same, and expand on the idea. That was a meme.
So if someone creates their own slug guitar image, it’s not patter theft
Where does it all stop then? Are we supposed to cite everyone involved in an image? The person who took the photo, the person who made the camera, the parents of the subjects for successfully creating, using biology or otherwise, the object of the image? Ideally, sure! But you don’t cite the author of the first book when talking about [insert famous contemporary author name to make you look less like an old man]’s books. Many Photoshops kicking around the playground of the internet don’t cite original creators of the image. Did I cite each person who took the photos of the guitarists, or the slugs for that matter? No, but how I look at it is that where there’s a change or manipulation of that image to give it a completely different meaning, the originator shifts. Slug guitarist images without the slugs have an unmistakably different context. There’s some spurious copyright infringement in that sort of thing, absolutely, but there’s been enough of my own stamp on it to render it my own — plus, I try as hard as I can to retain all watermarks. /excuse
But this really isn’t about some individual sharing an image on their social networks. An individual person finding one of these photos on a site and screenshotting or posting them to make their pals laugh is NOT patter theft. While I reckon it’s just good manners to try and find out who made something, or just retweet the original, the nature of the internet is sharing and I don’t think we should be fussed about a person distributing your stuff with their friends. I also think it’s dangerous to the future of the internet to make that a target of shame.
All of that, largely, isn’t the problem for me — I enjoy seeing people sharing my stuff whether they point back to me or not. The reeeeeal problem follows.
Why patter theft matters
Who cares? What are you losing? Retweets? Favourites? Shares? These are arbitrary numbers in the worst video game ever — what do you get out of that? They don’t translate into anything tangible. Someone stealing your stuff and sharing it on their own shitty Twitter account isn’t patter theft.
A large content harvesting site with a colossal following or readership purposely and maliciously stealing content, however, is patter theft right up to the hilt.
There’s a responsibility for these sites to hunt out originators. These are sites with paid staff, these are sites who unapologetically make money from other people’s work because ‘content’. Without even the courtesy of a nod, this is patter theft. The defence that it’s a viral piece of content doesn’t wash — these sites encourage and create that virality. This is the dark nucleus of patter theft and it stinks like shite.
Bigger content harvesting sites began trawling through my images on Twitter or on my site and either stealing completely or blatantly screenshotting — occasionally people have messaged me to point out my stuff posted on sites with sources pointed elsewhere, often to other huge sites with no mention of an originator.
I’m not alone, and other tweeters have complained (as is their wont) of similar treatment. Bigger tweeters, people with more clout. I don’t have a lot of online clout, it’s easy for me to get lost in the ether and, often, rightly so because I’m also responsible for the travesty that is Rock Dentistry. But why are there so many content sites stealing content? If numbers are arbitrary, why is it important to them?
Let’s look at the numbers because it’s all about the numbers.
When I first posted my slug photos I was retweeted around 19 times:
Following that, the images were picked up by content harvesting sites who DID cite me. Following that, they were uploaded into an Imgur album, citing a humour site as the source:
On Pinterest, no source:
On Facebook, with an implication that the person who posted the album was the creator:
These numbers are often followed by excited responses from the posters who are in awe at the amount of attention they’re getting.
Other than proving I’m a shitty self-marketer and bitter about other people getting attention, the pattern here is that the numbers are the goal and finding anything that’ll up those numbers has value. And in the case of bigger content sites, this is true. These sites are literally making money from the numbers.
Printing the internet
So I started my own magazine called Atomovision, not to make money from my stuff (all money made from the sales go right back into publishing the next issue), but to cement in physical hard copy a creator and content that couldn’t be quickly snipped and pasted on a Twitter feed to make someone else money.
I make a LOT of stuff. All the time. Anyone unlucky enough to follow me on Twitter is subjected to lots of bad Photoshops, grotesque drawings and daft stories on a daily basis. I can’t stress how sorry I am. But I find it necessary to do these things, whether you like it or not, because it makes my head feel okay.
Collecting it all in a comic format seemed like the most anti-internet thing I could do. It was more about physical design than quick clickbait. I really enjoy the topical quickness of internet content, but it soon becomes a game of fastest-finger on Photoshop with people smugly sharing witticisms in the hope to achieve these all-important numbers. I like playing with the idea that the internet can be printed and that there is scope to reward individual creators rather than allowing them to be consumed into the catchall term of ‘the internet’ when something they do gets attention.
It’s an anachronistic method, yeah, with print sales falling like a child attacked by a cat, but there’s an element of reciprocation there. Like the increase of subscription content through Patreon, people genuinely want to pay for stuff they like. There will always be the people who are happy to pay over £1 for a bottle of water that they can feasibly get for free from their own fucking sinks, but won’t pay 78p for a song. The problem with creative arts, particularly in the UK, is that it’s thought of as professionally undeserving.
As a result, writers are writing for exposure rather than money. Designers are designing for free to increase their portfolios. And the content harvesting sites are getting bigger and richer by exploiting originators and, in the case of patter theft, lacking even the exposure their popularity can bring by disregarding or mis-crediting the creator entirely.
Am I just clutching to stuff I make like a precious child? Yep.
Am I being ungrateful that people want to share the things I make? No.
Keep sharing, anyone who has ever seen something they’ve created sprout legs and bolt into the awful world knows it’s the best feeling.
But, see if you’re being paid for sharing it and aren’t pointing back to the creator? You’re a patter thief and you should probably buy my magazine for more ideas.
AND YOU CAN BUY IT HERE (this has all been advert.)