Saturday, May 15, 2010
The Importance of FilmXTRATOM
Right up front, I want to admit that there isn't much more that can currently be said about the story of FilmXTRATOM's plagiarism, at least not until YouTube responds to Matthew Turner's copyright claim against him. However, in the wake of Tom posting his newest review (which I won't link, since it gives him paid traffic as a YouTube Partner) I've seen a dispiriting amount of comments saying that Tom's actions don't matter or the posters of said comments don't care about what he did, and I think there is something to be said about that. Yeah, okay, those people probably aren't going to come to this blog. They probably aren't going to see this. But I feel like writing it, because, like the list of Tom's infringements itself, I think it's somewhat important.
There are a few primary reasons why Tom's actions mean something:
Plagiarism is a crime.
The easiest and most obvious statement to make here is that plagiarism is illegal.
Most cases of plagiarism are considered misdemeanors, punishable by fines of anywhere between $100 and $50,000 -- and up to one year in jail.
Plagiarism can also be considered a felony under certain state and federal laws. For example, if a plagiarist copies and earns more than $2,500 from copyrighted material, he or she may face up to $250,000 in fines and up to ten years in jail.
Most of the people trying to let Tom off the hook don't think plagiarism matters, because a) they just don't care, b) they don't care when it's on the internet, or c) they don't care because the plagiarized work in question is a bunch of movie reviews. Well...
This is pretty obvious too, but there's more to it than "it was my writing, and therefore I am mad about it!"
I have become acquainted with Matthew Turner in the last week, both via Twitter and e-mail, and he's clearly angry about what happened to him. I understand why people who are generally not "creative" about their opinion (i.e., opinions are stated in basic terms and not elaborately written out -- not an assessment of the quality of the opinions themselves, just the amount of effort put into them) have trouble understanding what the big deal is that Tom took the words out of someone's .doc file, especially when it's an opinion. "Two people can have the same opinion, right?"
But good writers try and create a "voice". It's not always perceptible, or, not always as perceptible as the writer in question (like me) would like to think it is, but regardless, that's part of the goal. Personally, I hope that if someone read my movie reviews, they would feel like they're having a conversation with me about the movie (albeit a one-sided one, although I think Matthew Lingo would attest that's what conversing with me is like).
At the very least, this should be easy to convey when it comes to the most extreme, stylized examples. Since this is a film blog, and the plagiarism concerns film, take Quentin Tarantino or Kevin Smith. Just by listening to the way the characters in one of their movies speak, I'd expect any viewer familiar with either of those filmmakers' work would know instantly they were watching a film by that person. That's a big part of what's at stake, and I guarantee that no writer wants their "voice" stolen.
Of all the reviews I found on Tom's page (and I may have missed some), only the first three reviews (of Hellboy II, Babylon A.D., and The Duchess) did not appear to be plagiarized. The fans that still support Tom don't seem to grasp that, if you watched purely for the reviews and opinions (as opposed to Tom reading the news, which he did link to), there wasn't anything to learn about Tom himself in those videos. He doesn't have "a way of looking at the films" or "a certain style", because almost the entirety of every review (excepting sentence or two at most, and not on the majority or even a significant portion of the videos) was taken word for word from those other reviews. Tom has no "voice". If the viewers thought there was something about Tom they liked when watching his reviews, I'm afraid the most he could be given credit for personally was his hyper-caffeinated enthusiasm.
Plagiarism is stealing from the writer.
Even having said all of that, it's still hard to get across why it matters that someone would steal your "voice", but to a writer, it's probably no different than having your house broken into. The actual mechanics and significance of the crime is different, sure -- it unquestionably takes more balls to break into a stranger's home and go through their belongings than it does to copy, paste, and memorize -- but the emotions are the same. It's invasive (they're coming into your headspace). They're taking something away from you that you worked hard for (either as an achievement or as a material item). They're passing it off as their own when they did nothing to earn it (the same for money, material goods, or the review) and in a way, they've invalidated you and everything that you did in the process.
The amount and mindset of plagiarism matters.
Another common sentiment is that I and other online voices are blowing things out of proportion. Tom's just some anonymous kid in Yorkshire, England. What business do a bunch of older professional film critics have beating up on this guy?
And, if Tom had swiped a one or two lines from a random review, and upon being found out, apologized swiftly, profusely, and genuinely, it probably wouldn't have been a blip on the Twittersphere. But not only was it nearly every single one of his reviews, it totaled nearly 100 counts of plagiarism.
I debated with a reasonably friendly person on Twitter about Tom, and the other person compared it to shoplifting a bottle of Coke from a local corner store. There are lots of reasons to dispute this comparison, but the biggest one is the amount of plagiarism. Okay, so for one review -- and even then, I'm being generous, since a given Tom video was 99% stolen and 1% Tom, if that -- let's say for the sake of argument I agree with this equation. And one Coke is certainly not deserving of the electric chair. But once Tom's stolen 75 Cokes, begun selling them to other people with his own label on them, and even started receiving the kind of Coke-seller cred that it takes legitimate salesmen years to earn, then it becomes a legitimate problem.
On top of that, it wasn't idle theft. Tom clearly put some level of effort into stealing from people, because a number of his reviews weren't copped from a single source. He would take the paragraphs he liked from multiple sources and re-arrange them until they sounded like they could all have come from the same review. I also didn't get the impression that Tom was reading off of cue cards, which hints that he may have memorized these reviews in order to make them sound like his own train of thought. If putting work into a crime doesn't wave a big red flag, then your code of ethics is probably in need of some revisions.
Tom was profiting off his plagiarism.
Okay, so we've got malicious mass plagiarism. Rage-inducing, sure, and worthy of punishment, but not seriously actionable...until you realize that Tom was pocketing cash for his operation. Not only was Tom a YouTube Partner, meaning the traffic his videos received earned him cash, but he also runs a Cafe Press-like T-shirt shop, has Google ads activated on his videos (no idea if that's set apart from being a YouTube Partner), and was being invited to red-carpet premieres in his country, as well as advance screenings. Right now I'm affiliated with three websites, and I don't make even a fifth of enough money doing that to earn any sort of living off of it, nor have I ever been to a red carpet premiere (I only see movies in advance). I don't know if Tom has a real job (he doesn't seem to), but he's the 85th most subscribed UK journalist of all time on YouTube, so I imagine his vids got a fair amount of traffic (although, like the Google Ads, I have no idea how much money this translates into).
This changes the entire scope of Tom's crimes. Another analogy: would you appreciate it if you went into your job, every day, toiling away at work that's hard but rewarding, and when payday came, you went up to collect your check, and found that another guy was getting paid for the work you were doing? Sure, he's not taking any money out of your paycheck, but this other guy gets to sit at home relaxing, and cashes in on the effort you put in. Does that seem fair to you?
Tom is still profiting off his plagiarism, even if he deleted it.
As a second part to this bullet point, Tom is, as of the time I write this, still a YouTube Partner. It takes a certain amount of views and traffic to become a YouTube Partner, and although Tom finally deleted the videos (rather than simply making them "private"), he still has a heightened level of awareness and membership to a club he wouldn't be part of without his plagiarism. Any money he makes off of his continuing status as a YouTube Partner is directly attributable to his crimes. If Tom really wants to soldier on (by which I mean ignore the fallout from this last week), which it seems he does, then the best thing to do is to dump the FilmXTRA name (which, although he didn't steal it, is the same name as a new UK film TV show), and launch a whole new channel without the existing one's benefits (i.e., not only the YouTube Partner status, but also the legions of followers he's retained).
It's just lazy, and if you're going to be lazy, why bother?
Even if none of that means a damn thing to you, it's outright lazy. I mean, how hard is it to formulate an opinion on something and express it to another person? I'm pretty sure that everyone in the world does it on a daily basis, so it can't be that tough.
Beyond that, what I said in my original blog post bears repeating: I just can't understand why you'd want to have a film review show on YouTube if you don't want to do the work when it comes to the primary, central function of the whole enterprise, which is reviewing movies. I've heard complaints from people that we're picking on this guy over his passion, but if Tom really loves film, then Tom would want to express his own views on movies. If he's not good at it, he should just talk about movies with his friends, who probably won't be judgmental of whatever it is that holds him back. If he wants to tell people other than his friends, then he should learn to get better, or not worry about the quality of his output, because the act of expressing himself is all that matters. If he wants to reach a wide audience without improving, then he should be happy with whatever he can create.
The only reason I can think of that Tom would want a film review show on the internet where he wants to express opinions, without self-improving, but still not being satisfied with what he personally creates, with the goal of reaching a wide audience, is that there must be some other benefit to the show, something he believes he won't get without stronger reviews, and the only thing I can think of is money. You must apply or accept an offer to become a YouTube partner, and if Tom was really testing the corruptibility of the website, then he should have declined.
Plus, if Tom's new review is "no different than the old ones" in terms of style (another claim I've heard in Tom's defense), then it means he is capable of expressing his own opinions, without stealing, and therefore his crime actually becomes more indefensible. If you don't have to steal, you shouldn't be doing it. What possible purpose could it serve ("corruptibility" aside) to steal something for no reason?
Last, but not least, he's insulting you. You, his loyal viewer. Of anything he did, I think I was most personally shocked by the plagiarism in his blogtv video, which he prefaced by saying the movie in question (Collateral) was something he watched because one of his own fans suggested it. He's lying to your face! He's assuming nobody will care enough to figure it out, least of all the people watching. The only reason people care enough to repeat visit any critic's blog, vlog, channel, Twitter, etc., is because they feel like that person has something unique to offer, something that the seeker can't get anywhere else, and Tom is throwing this basic agreement back in your face by faking the things that should make his tiny corner of the internet unique.
Look at his demeanor in his most recent video (or don't). He hasn't learned. He hasn't changed. Not only does he think what he's done is something that can be brushed off with a half-assed apology letter, but he thinks he can ignore the repercussions, and more importantly the people he's walked over in the process, and feed you, the viewer, a whole new slate of enthusiastic BS. Come on. Be honest. Doesn't that make you feel used? And if it doesn't, why not?
UPDATE: I do just want to add, once again, that iZone.sg is also stealing from Matthew Turner, and it's no more or less important that they are than it is that Tom was. Please, if you mention Tom in any blogs or Tweets, mention iZone and Izaruddin as well.