You Love Pizza Rat. You Don’t Own Pizza Rat
#PizzaRat is self-explanatory. #PizzaRat is a video of a rat carrying a giant slice of pizza down the stairs of a grimy Manhattan subway, a video that lasts only 14 seconds. To be honest, #PizzaRat doesn’t even do all that much. #PizzaRat drags his giant slice down just four steps, then sort of tiredly bails on it. The clip ends too abruptly. We never know if #PizzaRat made it home.
And #PizzaRat has completely overwhelmed the Internet.
That short clip was enough to capture the hearts of meme lovers the Internet over. It’s gone capital V “viral,” reaping over 5 million views on YouTube, not to mention countless retweets by journalists, marketers, brands, New Yorkers, and non-New Yorkers alike. #PizzaRat was written up in Gawker. He (or is it she?) was written up in New York blogs like DNAinfo and Gothamist. #PizzaRat (of course) landed on Buzzfeed and Mashable. He’s been shared on Facebook, on Instagram, and on YouTube. He’s been GIF-ified, Photoshopped into all sorts of compromising positions, and already become New York’s hottest upcoming Halloween costume.
#PizzaRat inspired a wave of articles from various think-piece-y media outlets, who all layered on their trademark takes: Vox (explainer); Slate (contrarian piece); and The New Yorker (a highbrow “Shouts and Murmurs”). Then #PizzaRat hit the big time. #PizzaRat made it to NPR, The Today Show, and CNN.
To Matt Little, the 35-year-old actor and comedian who filmed #PizzaRat, #PizzaRat is a symbol for life in New York. “You have too far to go and too much carry. But life gives you as much as you can handle,” he has said in interviews. (Little did not immediately respond to WIRED’s request for comment.)
In other words, #PizzaRat went viral because there’s something universally recognizable in #PizzaRat. But that poses the interesting question: Just because we relate to #PizzaRat, just because we’ve embraced and most importantly shared #PizzaRat, does #PizzaRat belong to all of us? And no, not in the philosophical sense. Who, legally, does #PizzaRat belong to?
Welp. FB took down my Pizza Rat clip, even though I credited the creator — copyright claim filed by Jukin Media pic.twitter.com/xXXxH7eYTX
— Mathew Ingram (@mathewi) September 23, 2015
Does #PizzaRat’s virality mean there should be fair use of his likeness across social media, publications, and the Internet in general? Of course, there is a philosophical argument to be made here. In the minds of many, the Internet was originally conceived to be a decentralized medium, chaotic but wonderful, a place where things spread organically and freely and without mediation. Instead, as John Herrman has argued in The Awl, it’s turned into a medium that’s mediated at every possible point.
It was the same with #PizzaRat. At approximately 3:30 PM on September 22, #PizzaRat came to the attention of Jukin Media, an LA-based viral video outfit. The company swiftly acquired the rights to the video, when it had only 2,660 views. “It was Jukin business as usual,” says Mike Skogmo, vice president of communications at the company. Jukin Media has a clever middleman business. The company finds extremely shareable videos, identifies the creators and strikes deals with them, and licenses the clips. Then, when publishers need content, they can grab viral videos from Jukin’s repository of about 20,000 clips, and throw ads against it. Or, if the clip is embedded from YouTube (which is still, by far, the clear leader in online video), it includes YouTube display ads, which make the creator—and its mediator, in this case Jukin Media—money.
it’s amusing watching Jukin Media being demonized by journalists and media execs for figuring out how to play Internet better than them. — Jack Marshall (@JackMarshall) September 23, 2015
Should there be fair use of #PizzaRat, who everyone, somehow, feels affinity with? Or because of the nature of #PizzaRat’s universality, should the owner be able to capitalize on its virality?
In this case, at least, the answer’s already been decided for us. Jukin has a license to #PizzaRat, which means it stands to make money from all the copies of #PizzaRat floating on the Internet—the gifs, the Vines, the Snapchats, the Instagrams, the YouTube clips, the Facebook posts. The company has an entire division dedicated to “rights management,” and that team scours the Web for stray reposts of video content, including modified videos, and issue takedown notices. Any ad revenue made by these copies is redirected to Jukin.
The fact that this can also happen for Facebook video now is interesting. When I hung out at the Jukin Media offices in June, the company described its huge “freebooting” problem to me—when YouTube videos it had licensed were being uploaded to Facebook and widely shared. Unlike YouTube—which has a highly advanced, automated system for identifying pirated copies on the site, called Content ID, dating all the way back to 2007—Facebook had no such system in place, until late in August. Today, the social network has video-matching technology developed by an in-house team and offered to certain video partners and publishers. Jukin Media is one.
Pizza Rat GIF has been on my Facebook page for less than 45 minutes now — 145,000 views, over 2K likes and 4,700 shares — Mathew Ingram (@mathewi) September 21, 2015
When I visited Jukin Media back in June, Skogmo told me the company had gotten its acquisition process down to an extremely streamlined process. One creator told Patch.com that five minutes after posting a video, he got a call from a Jukin Media researcher. Today, Skogmo tells me that the time frame of their process—from seeing a clip online to identifying a creator to getting a contract out to them, to getting back a signed contract—can be as little as four hours.
Today I also ask Mike Skogmo what he thinks of the tension between fair use and capitalizing on viral content. (Skogmo, it’s worth saying, isn’t just the vice president of communications at Jukin; he’s one of just three of the company’s board members, and as such is intimately familiar with Jukin’s mission.) “The video has obviously struck a chord, and kind of taken on a life of its own,” he says. “But at the same time, that doesn’t change the fact that there’s an owner who’s entitled to benefit from the video, and control the fate of the video somehow.”
“It’s fantastic that people are identifying with the video and having fun with it. But you can still share the links. There are still ways to enjoy a video without it being detrimental to the owner.”
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