If you’re online at all, it’s possible you saw a sudden spike in interest around plagiarism recently. A Youtube creator known as HBomberGuy released a longform video demonstrating how a couple of other big creators on the platform were plagiarizing content. This in itself was a huge reveal, and a giant rugpull for all of the people who were fans of the creators being put on trial, but the secondary result – a swarm of content mills also being called out for plagiarism – is now shaking out between a bunch of online archives and Youtube.
Fanfiction is a tricky area, legally. Fanfiction’s right to exist was (and still is) heavily contested, but we’re in a place now where large nonprofit archives (such as Archive of Our Own, one of the largest) can host fanfictions and creative writing projects for others to read, so long as the creatives don’t make profit off of the work elsewhere (such as Patreon or via donations made specifically for access to the work). This is itself an interesting system, but the point to focus on for this article is that profit part. You cannot profit off of characters you don’t own the rights to if they aren’t public domain. To make any profit off of the work, an author must at least change the characters’ names and the setting. Again, interesting, but not the point.
User AConstantStateOfBladeRunner on Tumblr (alongside a few others) have started hunting down Youtube channels plagiarizing the work of fanfiction authors. The channels generally either generate or take an image relevant to the fanfiction, put the fanfiction itself through an AI voice generator as a script, and then simply upload the image plus the audio directly to Youtube as a listenable video. Some channels bother to frame the content as a “what if?”, where the premise of the fanfiction is used as a title instead of the actual title of the fanfiction. Others just steal the title and add keywords so it’s easier to find by searches.
These channels are scooping up ad revenue where fanfiction authors are legally forbidden from doing so.
Stealing another person’s work is scummy. It’s plagiarism. There are plenty of tools within academics dedicated specifically to sussing out plagiarism, because it has a degenerative effect on whatever field it’s happening in. However, when the product is published for free, there’s an inherent lack of leverage between parties. A school could deduct points for not submitting via Turnitin to avoid the plagiarism detectors. A judge can penalize you for submitting poorly cited work as a lawyer. A paper could decide not to continue using your services if it turns out you’d been stealing reviews from other, smaller papers. But when it comes to fanfiction, written for free and consumed for free using copywritten content as a base, what happens to a thief?
One particular creator in HBomberGuy’s video was directly copyright claimed by Mental Floss, which owned the right to publish the article that the creator had used as a script. You can’t necessarily do that with fanfiction – the path from ‘copyright owner’ to ‘theft of copyrighted work’ is not nearly as linear. Obviously, it’s scummy to take someone else’s work and not give them credit, but they don’t own the characters either, just anything unique they added to the fanwork.
The only clear part of the equation is in the profit – the video is making money, which is expressly forbidden, but the fanwork original is not. If this draws attention from the wrong company, the channel might get copyright stricken for pulling in a profit on the content they stole. At the very least, they may be demonetized. This is such a potential minefield that a handful of the channels pointed out by AConstantStateOfBladeRunner would rather just yoink the video as soon as it’s noticed by the author than even try to win at the YouTube copyright takedown system. It’s imperfect, as just as many argue in favor of their theft or try to make the author go away by ignoring them. Because the content is transformative of the original copywritten work, that could only be countered by getting to a real human at YouTube rather than their automated copyright system. The copyright laws of today will be outdated by tomorrow – every day, someone finds a new way to jack content and re-label it as their own. This whole subsection of content farming wouldn’t have been possible before AI generated voices got better, because just reading these things out and editing that audio clip is much more work than it’s worth. Finding fanfiction on the open web was also difficult until very recently. Who knows what tool will be misused tomorrow?