If you're a person who attended school at some point in your life, you were taught that plagiarism is wrong. Ripping off someone else's work is akin to stealing, and stealing is wrong. Which explains why we react so passionately when high-profile members of society attempt to get away with it.
The latest public figure to try to pull one over on us is the "comedian" known as The Fat Jew. For the uninitiated, The Fat Jew (real name Josh Ostrovsky) boasts 5.7 million Instagram followers. For comparison, Leonardo DiCaprio has only 1 million. He’s also racked up 256,000 Twitter followers—numbers he was able to parlay into a book deal, sponsorships, a wine brand, and a contract with Hollywood mega-agency CAA.
Ostrovsky gained all those followers (and dollar signs) thanks to his funny tweets and social media posts. The problem is, he didn’t create the hilarious content—he has long been accused of stealing it from other comedians. Last week's news that he signed with CAA became the straw that broke the camel's back—comedians like Michael Ian Black, Patton Oswalt, and Kumail Nanjiani began publicly blasting him on social media.
Others called for fans to actively unfollow him. The backlash finally reached its tipping point earlier this week, moving beyond pissed-off comedians and into the mainstream. In a matter of days, Ostrovsky lost a TV deal at Comedy Central and a sponsorship from Seamless. CAA, however, has held onto him.
Of course, all the while, his supporters claim that he's simply "curating" or "aggregating," as many digital outlets do. But The Fat Jew has not been posting and crediting. Instead, he's posted jokes or memes and actively hidden or cropped off the original creator's name. This means his book deal, endorsements, and basically everything about his career has been built on the hard work of other people.
Which brings me back to the whole right-from-wrong thing. On the chance you feel bad for The Fat Jew, consider this: A recent study published in the journal Developmental Science found that by age 6, children understand that stealing someone else's work and not crediting them is just wrong. Let me repeat that: age 6! The Fat Jew is 30.
For the study, researchers from the University of Chicago and University of Washington conducted several experiments in which a storyteller told kids a story that someone else had written—and either admitted they were telling someone else's story, or lied and said they made the story up themselves.
The kids came to the conclusion that telling someone else's story and giving them credit was okay. However, telling someone else's story and taking credit or giving credit to the wrong person was bad. “These experiments specifically demonstrate what children dislike so much about copycats—they steal valuable credit from the person who generated the original idea,” write the authors. They add that people in general "respond negatively to plagiarism both because it involves falsely improving one’s reputation and also damaging someone else’s reputation."
In other words, plagiarism is a zero sum game—especially in the digital age, when every click and "like" that goes to the person stealing is taken away from the original creator.
So if tiny children understand how detrimental plagiarism is to original creators, why can't The Fat Jew? Or CAA? Seriously, I want to know.
Fusion reached out to Ostrovsky and CAA for comment but has not yet heard back.
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.