Mr. Beast, real name Jimmy Donaldson, is a YouTuber who has earned a reputation for his massive giveaways, massive projects and expensive stunts. However, one of his most recent videos has been drawing some criticism over allegations that it is plagiarizing its source material.
In the video, Mr. Beast recreates all the games from the recent Netflix hit series Squid Game and puts 456 people through them with the promise that the ultimate winner will receive $456,000. This video was a massive undertaking and, according to Mr. Beast, cost over $3.5 million to put on.
However, the video has also been a massive success. Currently, it has nearly 132 million views despite being up less than a week
But, while the video has been overwhelmingly popular, it is not without its detractors. In now-deleted tweet, Twitter user @SarahCPR said:
“So the promise of the creator economy is that you can spend 10 years of your life making something so that someone else can quickly parody it and get more views?”
This drew the attention of Ian Boudreau, the senior writer at PCGamesN, who responded with this:
However, after some backlash from others on Twitter, attempted to clarify his position:
In addition to the issues above, many criticize Mr. Beast for “missing the point” of Squid Game by turning a dystopian view of capitalism into a traditional game show.
But while these criticisms are from an extreme minority of the viewers, they do raise an interesting question: Given the fact that Mr. Beast, has been able to earn as many, if not more, views for his creation, what does that mean for the original work and the creators of similar such works?
That answer is much less clear.
Not a Plagiarism Story, But an Important One
To be absolutely clear, it was not Boudreau’s intent to accuse Mr. Beast of plagiarism. However, anyone who has jumped on that wagon is deeply mistaken. Mr. Beast makes it abundantly clear at multiple points in the video that his work is based on Squid Game, and he repeatedly references the show throughout.
Plagiarism deals with a lack of citation and acknowledgement, that is clearly not the case here. The source of the work was very heavily cited throughout.
However, his more nuanced point remains. The fact that Mr. Beast was able to find as great, if not greater, success than the original with only 7 weeks of lead time is a remarkable feat. However, what does it say when a creator struggles for a decade, as Squid Game‘s director Hwang Donghyuk did, only to have that effort usurped by a new one based upon it?
Calling Mr. Beast’s video a gleaming example of the merits of a “creator economy” is naive to say the least. Without the original Squid Game, Mr. Beast doesn’t have a video. As such, Mr. Beast’s creation is every bit the product of traditional media that the original Squid Game is, simply because its source and its reason for broad popularity is.
To be clear, Mr. Beast is not the one claiming this, it is other commenters and champions of self-publication versus traditional media. To that end, I completely agree that self publication can be a wonderful thing. This site and my career for the past 15 years are the product of self-publication and me taking a chance talking about issues that I’m passionate about.
However, it’s also important to acknowledge the limits. Squid Game, most likely, would not have been possible without certain elements of the traditional media. However, even Mr. Beast’s video required a massive sponsorship deal to make it happen. That’s not eliminating gatekeepers, it’s changing who they are.
For Donghyuk, this has to be at least somewhat frustrating. His decade of work was repackaged and resold by Mr. Beast in a way that seems counter to the original message. While it’s almost certain that Mr. Beast’s video was fully licensed, thus eliminating any copyright issues, it still has to raise mixed emotions.
This has to be doubly frustrating considering that Donghyuk himself was incorrectly accused of plagiarizing Squid Game after its release. He is briefly dubbed a copycat for simply having some similar ideas to an earlier work, but yet a new derivative work can come along and find even greater success.
For those trying to create original works, it raises the question: Why bother?
This isn’t a problem that’s exclusive to Donghyuk, to Squid Game, to TV or to film. Journalists routinely find their original reporting copied by later publications, often with little to no citation, that often find more readers. Likewise, artists are finding their works cut up and sold as derivative NFTs, often at eye-popping prices.
To paraphrase an adage, anything that is original and unique isn’t likely to be successful. However, the few things that are both original and successful won’t be original for long. They’ll be copied into oblivion.
So, why be a Donghyuk when you can be a Mr. Beast? Why be original when you can be a successful derivative? Why take the risk of uniqueness when greater success and security can be found elsewhere?
To be clear, none of this is to say that Mr. Beast did anything illegal or unethical. As long as he received the proper licenses, he didn’t do anything unethical. Still, it has to be frustrating for the countless creators like Donghyuk, who are struggling to create their original works, either through traditional media or self-publication.
The question instead, is whether we are viewers value originality. If not, why?
Hollywood is an interesting case study here. The film industry has become a haven for adaptations, sequels, reboots and franchises. Completely original works are few and far between. Simply put, in an industry with such high up front costs, original movies are often seen as too risky.
Viewers want the comfort of new-but-familiar content and gatekeepers want the security of something that is already successful. It’s a natural pairing and both sides are happy to keep the system going.
If Mr. Beast can be accused of anything, it’s understanding how the system works and having both the foresight and the resources to capitalize on it.
Mr. Beast’s success is not the product of plagiarism nor is it the product of the creator economy. It’s a product of a system where audiences tend to favor familiar content and creators have been happy to provide it. This is equally true for traditional media outlets and those taking less-tradiational routes.
Taking the Squid Game competitions and turning them into a real-life game show was an easy choice. It would have been successful regardless of who did it. The fact that it’s available for free on YouTube is just adding another advantage it has over the original.
What this shows is that creators need to not only encourage gatekeepers to take a chance on original works, but audiences too. Squid Game’s success was largely dependent on a combination of word-of-mouth promotion and a marketing push from Netflix. Mr. Beast was able to combine the show’s existing success with his existing audience to create an instant success.
To be clear, no one is punishing original works. It’s just that audiences are reluctant to risk time and investors are reluctant to risk money on unproven things. As such, it’ll always be much easier to create and find success with a derivative than with something original.
However, finding a balance will be crucial. After all, you can’t have a sequel without an original.