It is not terribly uncommon for people to steal and use ideas that are not their own. In high school and college they lectured us over and over about plagiarism, and threatened us with a strict zero-tolerance policy. Clear-cut: you get caught stealing, you’re gone. In the real world, plagiarism is much easier to get away with it seems. Even with a mountain of evidence, there rarely seems to be a just end (we saw E!News get away with it just earlier this year).
Today, writer John Freiler took to Twitter to call out a large company, Geico Insurance, for ripping off a short film he made with Joe Nicolosi. The brilliantly done horror film parody trailer done by Freiler and Nicolosi isn’t some hidden web gem seen only by comedy and film nerds. The film was screened at SXSW 2013 and then later was posted on Youtube where it garnered a mighty 6.4 million views.
Freiler took to Tumblr to explain his himself in more than 140 characters.
“… This fall, insurance giant GEICO used the Martin Group (http://tmgbrandfuel.com/), their marketing team, to create a Halloween-themed commercial to run this month. Imagine our surprise to see how closely their commercial resembles our short:”
“… GEICO, a company that is essentially a sentient collection of irritating pop-up ads for your TV, copied our film down to its marrow. This is not awesome or fun or great.
GEICO’s ad inverts our premise, having its characters make dumb decisions instead of smart ones, but the method and effect are the same: meta-commentary on poor horror movie decisions played completely straight. GEICO ripped not only our premise, but the TONE, the FEEL of our film. The editing, the cinematography, the music…they even swiped our idea of having the psychokiller’s confused reaction be the funny button that ends the short.
I didn’t start this post with the list of accolades our short received in order to brag. I did it to show I’m not some sour-grapes crank threatening a shaky lawsuit. SIX MILLION, FOUR HUNDRED-SOME THOUSAND PEOPLE watched our short (In comparison, GEICO’s ad currently has just short of 41,000 hits, not even 1% of our reach). Our work played at one of the BIGGEST FILM FESTIVALS in the country. I find it completely hard to believe that GEICO’s ad’s similarity to ours is a coincidence.
This past Monday (10/6/14), I began to reach out to GEICO on Twitter. Later, I included the Martin Group as well. I asked numerous questions about the similarities, but they remained silent. However, one thing did happen – GEICO decided to buy up all the ad space on the YouTube page for our short. Go ahead, check it out (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=olEbwhWDYwM), and you’ll probably see GEICO ads plastered all over the sides of the page. You might even have to watch one of their ubiquitous commercials before you can see the short. Having to look at these is annoying. Realizing that I can’t even point out GEICO’s plagiarism by presenting my own work without GEICO’s ads being omnipresent throughout is beyond annoying. It is INFURIATING.”
While parallel thinking happens, it’s awfully unsettling to see that the theft in question bought up ad space on the very project they are accused of stealing from. Failure to reply to said claim doesn’t bode well either. History tends to not be on the little guy’s side with these claims. Freiler said he would not be taking legal action, afterall, the commercial is different enough to probably easily escape any action. Lady GaGa and Spike Lee have walked away unscathed from legal battles of copyright that were much more blatant, why wouldn’t a company like Geico? Hell, The Simpsons even did a similar premise in the “Treehouse of Horror X” segment “I Know What You Diddily-Iddily-Did,”in which the Homer points out the hiding options for the endangered family as: abandoned amusement park, pet cemetery, spooky roller disco, and “lake where the sexy teens where killed a hundred years ago tonight.”
Copyright is one of the trickiest laws to wrangle, and the ethics around it are even murkier. Every person has such a different standard and definition to what they are. To any creatives reading, guard your projects.