Two months ago, several current and former students texted me asking if I had seen a new YouTube video called “Plagiarism and You(Tube).” The video by Hbomberguy, also known as Harry Brewis, received more than 15 million views, and nearly 20 minutes of its four hour run time were spent discussing the plagiarism of my book, Tinker Belles and Evil Queens: The Walt Disney Company from the Inside Out. Over 20 years after its publication, it had become the subject of an online scandal. I guess the only thing worse than bad publicity is no publicity at all.
The issue was first brought to my attention in September 2020, when a stranger informed me that a YouTuber named James Somerton had used large portions of my book in a video without citing me. A day later, Somerton himself reached out. Somerton claimed an oversight, apologized, and offered to revise the video to give me prominent credit for my work. Watching his now-deleted video essay “Evil Queens: Disney’s Queer Cold War,” it was immediately and abundantly clear that he had lifted full paragraphs and pages from my book and used them as his script. Video essays are a popular genre on YouTube. In a video essay, creators argue for their thesis using voiceover, clips from media, and other tools unique to the medium. Like any other essayist, these writers are expected to cite their sources. There were no professors to hold Somerton accountable, only the vigilante in my inbox. Somerton sent a link to the revised video, with an opening title card that credited me and the book. I was satisfied with his change, and told him so, because I did not think it too huge a deal to get into over a 20 year old book. Both individuals who had contacted me were claiming that they were being harassed by the other, including supposed calls to the police and death threats. I had absolutely no desire to get pulled into this chaos.
A few years later, I received some emails from a person I did not know who said they were doing research about online plagiarism and wanted to know if I would be willing to answer some questions about Somerton. Due to how out of control things had gotten previously, I ignored the emails. Now I know that was only the beginning. As it turned out, Harry Brewis is quite a popular YouTuber, and his audience includes my students. After they contacted me, I watched his video and learned more context about Somerton, finding out he had used work from a number of other authors in other video essays—and made a lot of money in the process. Somerton’s audience was large, with over 300,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel and 3,000 paying subscribers on Patreon. Between his ad revenue and his patrons, he made more from his stolen work than many of the original writers did. After Brewis’ video was released, he unlisted all of his videos and deactivated his Patreon. Now, his stolen work can only be watched through unofficial reuploads.
Obviously, plagiarizing material is wrong—and I am glad that people like this are being called out. It is perhaps ironic that the same medium that these people are using to profit from plagiarizing is also helping expose their chicanery. The wealth of search engines makes it very easy for people to verify someone’s work, and my university has been using Turnitin for student papers for years now. If YouTubers would like to retain the title of “video essayists,” I suggest they hold themselves to the same standard. Brewis’ video shows that some content creators are capable of recognizing bad scholarship.
Fortunately, the damage to me personally or professionally seems to have been minimal, at least so far. In the 20 years since the book was published, I have gained a name as an expert in Disney and LGBTQIA+ issues, including being interviewed for articles in Vanity Fair, Time, and The Washington Post, and invited to write an op-ed piece for The New York Times. I would say Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has helped increase my status as a media expert as much as Harry Brewis. DeSantis’ attempts to punish the Walt Disney Company for their support of LGBTQIA+ rights has framed Tinker Belles and Evil Queens in a new light. And, if anything, the brouhaha that Brewis generated has spurred sales of the book.
As such, I felt the need to respond to an offer made by Brewis at the end of his video. He plans to divide his earnings from “Plagiarism and (You)Tube” among the authors plagiarized by James Somerton. In the comments section for the video, I thanked him and the many others who have come to my defense. I said that the offer of sharing compensation was a beautiful gesture, but I was not struggling financially—and thus, he should take whatever my portion would be and split that up among the other authors. My post created a new opportunity for people to stir the pot, claiming I either had ulterior motives for my post (even though I mentioned that I would likely get financial gains from improved book sales) or that I was falsely claiming to be mentioned in the video in order to publicize the book. Again, people in the comments section rushed to my defense—and it seems that the accusatory posts have been taken down (either by the original authors or by Brewis himself). Dragged into Internet ‘drama’ against my will, I received a small taste of the vitriol and chaos that accompanies social media attention. Hopefully, this is the last time I experience it.
Sean Griffin is a professor in the SMU Meadows Division of Film and Media Arts. He wrote the book Tinker Belles and Evil Queens: The Walt Disney Company from the Inside Out, examining the relationships between Disney and lesbian/gay/queer culture. Griffin is also the author of Free and Easy?: A Defining History of the American Film Musical Genre and co-author of America on Film: Race, Class, Gender and Sexuality at the Movies and Queer Images: A History of Lesbian and Gay Film in America. He has also edited several anthologies and contributed a number of articles on the musical genre, soap operas and Disney to journals and other anthologies.
Prior to becoming a professor, Dr. Griffin helped produce television ad campaigns for Disney and Touchstone motion pictures, including Who Framed Roger Rabbit?; Dead Poets Society; Honey, I Shrunk the Kids; The Little Mermaid; Pretty Woman; Dick Tracy; and Beauty and the Beast.