Courtesy of Kojima Productions

December 9, 2019

BONO | How ‘Super Mario’ Unknowingly Fought Bots

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I’m not gonna lie: Art is hard. You practice illustration or animation or music or writing for years and years, waffling between periods of time when you either think your creation is the greatest thing known to man or everything you do stinks like a dorm room dumpster. When you’re an artist online, all of these internal suspicions are confirmed by thousands of commenters, emboldened by varying degrees of anonymity, praising your accomplishments and highlighting your flaws. In that kind of environment, you might look for ways to make your work better, to take shortcuts, to make all the money you can to support yourself. But in doing so, you might walk the line between inspiration and plagiarism, or cop others’ work entirely — after all, who’s going to say you can’t? The art police? It’s just the Internet.

The Internet might not be such a lawless place for much longer. Last week, a large swath of Twitter’s art community took a stand against art theft. It technically started on Nov. 29, the day after Thanksgiving, when a Japanese promotional account for Sony’s Playstation posted a “PS4 Lineup” compilation video. The spot featured clips from current games like Death Stranding and Persona 5, punctuated by animated bumpers depicting an (unnervingly-smiley, like he knew what he was getting away with) cartoon character running, jumping and fighting through colorful shapes and PS4 controllers. It stayed up for only a couple days before Animation Twitter realized there was something wrong. The character’s design and environment were original and specific to the spot, but his movements — swinging through clouds of dust and turning rubber-hose to jump on top of a planet — were all taken from somewhere else. Twitter users quickly started stitching together side-by-side comparisons, suggesting that the character’s movements were all traced frame-by-frame from a wide range of works, from small student films to well-known shows like FLCL and Steven Universe. Sony took the video down and cut ties with the animator responsible, but that wasn’t where Twitter’s anti-plagiarism crusade ended.

It continued on Dec. 3 when artists began to upload curious, text-based art, urging their followers to respond asking for t-shirts of the images. Every image had some variation on the phrase “this website steals art.” Why? For a while now — I first saw this happen a few months ago, but the trend probably has gone on longer than that — custom-shirt websites have sent swarms of bots, disguised as normal Twitter accounts, into the replies of popular artists. Whenever someone comments something along the lines of “I’d love to buy a shirt of this!” on a popular illustration, that bot downloads the art, removes the artist’s signature and lists it for sale as a shirt on a separate website. It then tags anyone who replied to the original tweet, posing as a regular user who just happened to find the listing online. Unsurprisingly, artists didn’t like this too much — it’s a little like stealing a shirt from Kohl’s and then reselling it in the parking lot of the Kohl’s.

That’s when the Twitter artists’ plan comes in. They figure if they can bait these bots into stealing images that say “don’t buy from this website!” they can trick them into warning potential buyers that the site sells stolen art. It’s a solid plan, but the trend mutated a step farther: Some artists started putting copyrighted characters in the images, like Mickey Mouse or Mario, in the hopes that Disney’s and Nintendo’s respective lawyers will join the fray. When an independent artist’s work is stolen and sold elsewhere, they usually don’t have the legal muscle to do more than request the site takes the one listing down, but big corporations are famous for using legal action to protect their IPs online. YouTube, in particular, always yields to big copyright holders to avoid facing legal action themselves, which is why the video-sharing platform has survived so long.

It remains to be seen whether this tactic will actually work, whether these bizarre shirts will stop the bot problem once and for all or just drive more traffic to these knockoff sites. Corporate legal teams can’t sweep every corner of the Internet, as evidenced by the copyrighted content that lives on YouTube despite its strict rules, the reruns of That’s So Raven sped up 1.25x, mirrored and pasted onto a stock image of a television that pop up if you know where to look. The Playstation incident won’t stop tracers from making money on other people’s work, either; outrage around the video has calmed down since its deletion, but that doesn’t mean the conversation around plagiarism is over. Every week, I see new debates about referencing vs tracing, homages vs rip-offs, springing up on my Twitter timeline like grass growing in sidewalk cracks. But maybe this past week is a sign of gradual change. Maybe if artists continue to make noise, one day, copyright law will protect smaller creators the way it does larger ones, and The Bots will finally be defeated.

Olivia Bono is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at obono@cornellsun.com. On the Level runs alternating Tuesdays this semester.