‘But that’s my idea’: Sharing, stealing and Tumblr

We went to an interesting session last night. A guy called Max Sebela dropped in to inspire a bunch of marketing people about the promise and potential of Tumblr. It was fun. We saw lots of Gifs and some interesting case studies. But the first question out of the blocks was “What do you do about copyright infringements?”

The answer was wooly – it kind of had to be. 

First. What’s Tumblr?

Tumblr is a blogging platform, pitched as a media channel. Obviously it’s both. People use it as entertainment and to share their individuality and creativity as ‘content creators’. Essentially it’s an arena of “look at me, I’m clever and cool”. Given that’s the ultimate goal of brand builders, you can see why the room was interested.

The challenge was ownership of assets. Many of the millions of Tumblr posts and shares are reappropriated moments from pop culture. Re-badging and re-thinking of assets ‘owned’ by someone else. Max pitches Tumblr as a place where people (and brands) can twist the zeitgeist to create their own communications – a bit like a millennial mix tape.

So that’s Tumblr. But what’s an idea?

This is a question that comes up a lot. The best description I’ve come across is “the combination of two or more existing thoughts to create something new”. That suggests that nothing isn’t original until you spin it into something new. It’s a question of pastiche vs piracy and it’s a fuzzy grey line. And ultimately, it begs a question about what copyright really looks like. 

Sebela argued that borrowing interest from the zeitgeist helps promote the creative originator. It’s a reasonable argument. Chuck Norris was nearly done with being an action hero before he became and internet meme. And the global phenomenon of a RickRoll probably bolstered Mr Astley’s back catalogue sales more than any amount of marketing.

So does ownership even matter anymore?

The obvious answer is ‘of course it does’. But this is changing. Ownership is about control and money. The internet turns that on its head. In the past, content owners have been able to monetise content through carefully managed channels of distribution. These days content is widely distributed and collated (legally and otherwise) through any number of platforms and channels. Creators now have less control and content distributors (Facebook/Tumblr/YouTube) are the ones who make most of the money. When you consider that the content creation industry is essentially fuelled by ego and money, you can see why we have a hard time coming to terms with this change of direction.

Social influence vs legal control

I reckon this is the nub of it. The law can’t keep up. We saw it in New Zealand this week with the flag debate. On the one hand there’s a ‘technically’ democratic process asking its country to choose a new flag. Then there’s a ‘socially’ democratic process that quickly galvanised a following and ultimately changed the law. These things will happen more and more often.

What does all this mean for marketers?

The top tips on great content from yesterday’s session revolved around being interesting and being relevant. No big surprises there. Ultimately, our job is to sell stuff by making people want to buy it. So creating content people want to share is a no brainer. Being brave enough to plant content seeds and let our customers play with them is the best way to build influence in Tumblr.

More importantly, being open, accessible and interesting is the only way forward for any brand. That means trying new things, making mistakes and fundamentally understanding that customers now make the rules. Most progressive marketers are already on that bus. The only real roadblocks are the corporate power brokers who are still used to holding all the cards. 

Content is king and copyright is confusing

Bottom line, the people are speaking and content is their king. But she’s an autocrat. The days of exerting control are pretty much over. So those of us in the business of making money out of content need to let go of any notion of control and start harnessing our powers of influence. 

As for copyright? Let’s leave that to the lawyers. They’ve got some catching up to do.

That’s what I reckon, what do you think?

  • Michael Goldthorpe runs a strategic and creative shop called Hunch.

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Michael Goldthorpe is Managing Partner at Hunch.

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