Twitter Judges Tweeted Jokes Copyrightable

Tweeted a great joke lately? Was it A) a brilliantly original observation all of your own? Or B) a funny tweet you saw on Twitter and pilfered, sans credit?

If the answer is B) your joke theft might result in your tweet being blocked on copyright grounds — if the original composer of the joke reports your theft as copyright infringement to Twitter.

The Verge covered a recent incidence of this happening, after Twitter user @Plagiarismisbad noticed instances of tweet takedowns relating to a joke originally tweeted by freelance writer Olga Lexell (@runolgarun):

Although, as other Twitter users have pointed out, tweets being blocked on copyright grounds is not in itself a new thing — e.g. this one from two year’s ago:

So it’s not clear whether Twitter has recently expanded its copyright policy to specifically cover 140-character jokes, such as the one written by Lexell. Or whether this is more a case of a writer who tweets her jokes thinking to report their plagiarism on Twitter, and the resulting takedowns coming to other users’ attention.

U.S. copyright law does not always cover short phrases (that’s more getting into trademark territory), so 140-characters might be a stretch for traditional copyright law purposes. But of course Twitter makes the rules on its platform and gets to apply them how it sees fit.

A spokesperson for Twitter declined to comment on the individual tweet in question but pointed us to its general copyright and DMCA policy. That policy doesn’t mention jokes specifically — rather focusing on multimedia content such as photos, videos or links to copyrighted material — but there’s a process for anyone who believes their copyright has been infringed to report the content to Twitter for review.

@runolgarun’s tweets are now protected but, according to the Verge, she tweeted earlier to confirm she had reported theft of her joke to Twitter, asserting her intellectual copyright of the content in the tweet and saying she makes her living writing jokes and uses tweets to test them out. She also told the publication she had filed other takedown requests to Twitter before now, noting that spambots were frequently the culprits for this sort of credit-less reposting.

In recent times Twitter has taken greater steps to control the types of content that can be broadcast on its platform, doing more to counteract the visibility and spread of abusive sentiments, for example. Whereas, in earlier years and pre-IPO, Twitter’s Biz Stone pushed a more ‘hardline pro-free speech’ stance, arguing the tweets must flow — and saying the company would “strive not to remove Tweets on the basis of their content”.

Blocking a tweet on IP grounds may be less controversial than removing someone’s (hateful) opinion, but both show how Twitter’s platform has shifted its stance on the flow of tweets as it seeks to scale up and attract a more mainstream user-base.