TikTok at Your Own Risk: The Case of Sailor J and Stealing Art on TikTok

“Now you can tell the truth and stop playing a part in my being exploited by a whole ass APP worldwide without my permission,” Jahkara Smith wrote.

"If the men find out we can shapeshift, they're going to tell the church."

That's one of Jahkara Smith's most memorable lines from her most well-known YouTube video titled "Contouring 101," which today has over 4.4 million views. "I don't know if you put your contouring on before the rest of your makeup or after the rest of your makeup, but it doesn't matter; because men are stupid," she quips in a mid-Atlantic accent. Her popularity defied expectations, The Mary Sue noted, "because three of the worst things you can be online are: a woman, brown, and loud." Similar features in The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Allure, and Refinery29 praised her cutting commentary on the patriarchy, sexism, and racism, given while mocking the very forum she was using: beauty tutorials, which by their nature prop up an industry that's mostly run by white women and neglects women of color (despite the fact that black women spend up to nine times more on beauty and haircare than white women).

In 2018, she told The Mary Sue, "For whatever reason, I feel like I'm running out of time, or people will forget about me, and I won't have the same opportunities again. That kind of stuff." But at 21 years old, Smith, AKA Sailor J on YouTube, felt that she'd captured a moment to bring attention to society's ethnocentric beauty standards and the patriarchal implications that a woman only cares about beauty products in order to attract a man. "Men cannot know that we wear makeup. It will all be over for all of us. The universe will stop. Reproduction will cease," Smith says at the opening of her first makeup tutorial, titled "Getting a Man 101," which has accrued over 2.2 million views. The point, she says while beating her face aggressively with a beauty blender: "If you don't look like a white beauty blogger, it's over for you." To date, she maintains nearly 500,000 subscribers despite the fact that she no longer posts on her channel.

On TikTok, however, her videos have seen somewhat of a resurgence in popularity, with her online persona "sailorj" being used over 4.3 million times as a hashtag. The mostly Gen-Z–but increasingly millennial–platform is a hybrid of SnapChat and Vine, between video diary and sketch comedy, with users posting dance trends, challenges, tirades, or political commentary. At some point, the audio clips from several of Smith's videos were uploaded to the platform, where millions of users have lip synced to her satire–and to Smith, they're all "f*cking thieves."

YouTube “Sailor J"

YouTube, “SailorJ"

In January 2020, Smith made it clear that she doesn't approve of any of her content being appropriated by TikTok users. "Absolutely no one on TikTok or any other platform has my permission to strip this video for any audio or visual purposes," she posted. When responses ranged from solidarity and promises to inform TikTokers of her wishes to criticism that she should be thankful for the publicity, she added, "And no, I'm not grateful that people are stealing because I don't make videos for the sake of having other people like them/me."

TikTok is, as Wired described, "a copyright law nightmare." In many ways, the platform is designed for plagiarizing. With its participatory nature allowing users to respond to other videos or re-use the audio, it exists in a murky space of fair use and monetization. "TikTok isn't offering a new service and then scrambling to monetize it, it's cashing in on a culture other platforms frown upon," writes Wired. "The appeal (sometimes problematically) is in appropriating something that doesn't belong to you and tweaking it until it's your own—an infinite cycle of remixes of remixes, just like a meme." As a musically-driven platform (TikTok acquired the short-lived app, after all), the company has partnered with record companies to license existing music, as well as new music from debuting artists for a low fee.

But while lip syncing to the app's library of licensed music avoids (for the most part) dicey copyright problems, millions of videos use sound from other creators. The problem with using Sailor J's material is that, as she pointed out to one commenter, she never uploaded her content onto TikTok–which means her material is completely outside of the company's terms and services. One reason TikTok gets away with encouraging lip syncing and monetizing meme culture is the way it sets out its terms, from protecting TikTok's own branded material to establishing 23 rules for "Your Access to and Use of Our Services," as well as extensive descriptions of User-Generated Content. Namely, if a creator has a TikTok account, then their material is free to use by other TikTok creators: "Users of the Services may also extract all or any portion of User Content created by another user to produce additional User Content, including collaborative User Content with other users, that combine and intersperse User Content generated by more than one user."

So what can Smith do about her unwitting and exploitative TikTok popularity? She can send TikTok a take-down request due to copyright infringement; in 2019, the company apparently received 3,345 such notices, according to their first ever Transparency Report. They say they complied with 85% of requests to remove content. "Now you can tell the truth and stop playing a part in my being exploited by a whole ass APP worldwide without my permission," Smith says in the comments to her contouring video. The YouTuber-turned-actress (and former Air Force servicewoman) has joined the cast of AMC's horror drama NOS4A2 and starred in season two of Hulu's Into the Dark. She doesn't have time to create content for her YouTube channel anymore, but the problems with being an influencer have only intensified with social media crossover.

"Makeup is a form of appropriation as well," she told The New York Times in 2018. Playing with identity and changing one's form is a fundamental aspect of the beauty industry, one that's often manipulated to exploit people's vanity, insecurities, and desire to slip into someone else's skin, if only under a chemical layer. Speaking on the intense backlash she'd received from her social critiques in her parodies, she said, "I don't want those kinds of people watching me anyway. The problem with YouTube is you almost can't be yourself if you want to make it career-wise." Now, with over 500 million users and 1.5 billion downloads, TikTok's estimated worth crossed $75 billion in 2018, making its owner, ByteDance, the most valuable privately held company in the world. With more than 1 billion videos viewed every day, hardly anyone online is really being themselves. But therein lies the appeal of lip syncing: someone pretending to be someone they're not, but in such a kitschy way that it's not inauthentic–it's mocking inauthenticity. Quartz calls this a delicious form of "cognitive dissonance" that's "unapologetically cheesy" while showcasing that "identity can be unapologetically fluid." Most pointedly, in an age when we're still fumbling our attempts to be inclusive but not overly corrective, reigning in cancel culture while still policing instances of cultural appropriation, lip syncing content "strikes an upbeat, nearly utopian chord of free lending and borrowing."

While that opens the terrain of creative property to play with while we're home on a sick day (just as Smith was when she filmed her first video in under an hour on a whim), content based on fluid play-acting means that original creators are more of an afterthought than ever, as users confuse content that's public to mean it's copyright-free. But, appropriately, TikTok's Terms and Services also includes this warning: "You acknowledge and agree that when you view content provided by others on the Services, you are doing so at your own risk."

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