The boy who cried ‘Plagiarism!!’

Barracuda by Celandine - aqua version, detail

Barracuda by Celandine – aqua version, detail

I was talking to a good friend the other day and she asked me to write about a difficult subject – artists stealing from artists. She had been accused of stealing from someone else, and it affected her deeply. We talked for a long while and I got to thinking about the issue of plagiarism specifically as it applies not to big companies ripping off small creatives or cheap phone case knock-offs made from stolen Society6 preview images, but artists whose work heavily borrows from the work of other artists.

Being accused of ripping someone off is probably up there as one of the most horrid things that can happen to a creative. We pride ourselves on our creativity, and although we live in a world where nothing is quite new, and all themes and styles are recycled into eternity, we strive to make sure that everything our hands create carries an unmistakable personal touch.

On the other hand, looking at fashion brands, accessory shops, stationery stores or Pinterest, that holy meeting place of All Things Pretty, it’s easy to see that each new trend carries with it massive waves of artwork that looks similar enough to almost appear interchangeable. This is not a legal issue, but a moral one – as was proven by the recent Richard Prince controversy (and I still say he’s an ass, albeit a clever one). Even appropriation of someone else’s artwork is permissible under the law if you can show that your changes to it were ‘transformational.’ And it is absolutely not possible to copyright a trend or style. Otherwise the entire surface design world would be engaged in the Mother of All Law Suits.

But what happened to my friend?

Ok, so we have two artists. Names will be changed to respect their privacy – let’s call them Anna and Elsa. Anna has decided to try out a popular trend – tribal animals. Google ‘tribal animals’ or search for them on any PoD site and you will see that Anna is definitely not the pioneer of this trend – it’s well established and going strong, and many artists have worked with it in their own ways. She makes some images and feels pretty good about them. She posts one on a PoD site and in some Facebook promotion groups.

Anna then gets a very angry private message from Elsa, calling her a copycat and a lot of other unpleasant things. Elsa sends links to the artwork of a third artist – let’s call her….. Kristoff? I don’t know, making up names is hard! Anyways, Elsa links Kristoff’s work as ‘proof’ that Anna’s work is plagiarism – but Kristoff’s piece is completely different from Anna’s. They do share the same animal and same idea of filling the animal shape with tribal patterns, but no further similarities exist. Anna happens to be good friends with Kristoff, and asks her directly whether she feels taken advantage of by Anna’s new piece, and Kristoff replies ‘not at all, it’s your interpretation of the same trend, go for it and don’t worry.’

Anna tries to explain all this to Elsa, who keeps furiously insisting that Anna is a fraud and a thief, and sending more and more different pieces of similarly themed art, by different artists, to support her claims.

At this point one needs to wonder, does Elsa feel all those other artists are also frauds and thieves who have all stolen from each other? Because she is acknowledging that there is a wealth of similar artwork out there, and yet is singling Anna out as the target of her accusations.

Long story short, some more private message shouting and FB blocking ensued, and the whole incident left Anna feeling very shaken and insecure about her artwork, even though she did not copy any part of it from anyone else.

This is not an uncommon scenario. Copyright and artist rights are a difficult, convoluted and sometimes downright murky subject, and many artists have radically different ideas regarding the level of rights and control they have over their own work. Many non-artists are quick to lash out at perceived ‘copycats’ in order to protect their favorite artists, even when the ‘copycats’ did nothing more than simply work in a similar style. So this raises a difficult question – at what point does your style become your personal trademark?

Again, I’m not speaking in legal terms, but in moral ones. At what level does it stop being ok to make a piece similar to someone else’s? Because, pretty much everything we make is similar at some level to the work of people who came before us, those who inspired us, or those who work alongside us and take in the same influences. Whether it’s a blooming rose or a polar bear with a winter hat or a cat riding a tricycle, you can bet your gouache paintbox that someone has done it before. Add to that the objective necessity of using reference photographs when drawing unfamiliar subjects (how many of us have regular access to deer?) and the whole thing is just a major mess.

Ultimately, my message to anyone who feels others have taken advantage of their work, or the work of an artist they admire, is to remember this – trends and popular subjects will always exist, we all draw our inspirations from somewhere, and artists should strive to build each other up, and not tear each other down. Unless you have proof positive that someone has deliberately copied a specific piece of art, please don’t start social media flame wars. With a bit of research, your work could probably also be questioned under the same flimsy criteria.

Actual plagiarism, of course, is a different matter. Steal someone else’s actual work and we’ll all be along shortly to tar and feather you. YOU HAVE BEEN FOREWARNED.

Have you ever been accused of plagiarism? Ever find yourself wondering where the line is between inspiration and theft? Let me know in the comments! 

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4 thoughts on “The boy who cried ‘Plagiarism!!’

  1. Thank you for addressing this issue. I’m in fear also I could accidentally be accused of copying. Not because my work would encourage it but just because in the internet age there are many crazy people out there and a shitstorm is only one mouse click away. I ended up deciding that I will not care as long as it is not happening and when it ever happens there is anyway no way to be prepared of it in advance.

    • Hahahah it’s all too true, sadly. There are many ‘justice crusaders’ these days who champion causes on social media without taking the time to fully understand the issue at hand. But I think it helps if we have a healthy discourse about the difficult topics and go into these situations with clearly formulated thoughts and ideas. It might not help us avoid problems entirely but should make them easier to bear.

      Related to this I heard a nice bit of wisdom recently – ‘You’re not obliged to attend every argument you’re invited to’ 😀

  2. It’s so difficult isn’t it? It’s not completely unusual for me to like an image on instagram or Pinterest, or in my Facebook feed, assuming it’s by Artist A, only to do a double-take when I realise it’s Artist X. Sometimes it’s so close that I scurry off to check and it’s pretty much never a direct copy, but sometimes it’s so, so, so similar in style that it makes me frown a bit. On the few occasions where I’ve dug a bit deeper (I don’t think I would ever immediately try to call anyone out, or even alert Artist A, because of all the stuff you say above, really), it’s always been the case of a ‘style’ that’s not entirely unique and that can be traced back to a style that seemed to start 50 years ago, 100 years ago, 150 years ago…

    We all have a shared source of historical design that will influence us and it’s unlikely we’re going to ever come up with something completely brand new. And, yes, even ideas, such as a bear with a hat on, a fish riding a bike, etc. etc. can’t be claimed to be completely original.

    There’s a recent book by one of my favourite children’s author/illustrators, that makes me frown slightly whenever I read it to the girls, because the story is almost identical in terms of plot to one by another one of my favourite children’s authors. So much so that the girls also point it out most times. But I bet if I dug deeper, I’d find they’re both based on an Aesop’s fable or Just So story or something like that.

    So, yeah, I wouldn’t ever jump on an image immediately and shout ‘Theft!’.

    • It really is, Tasha.

      For a while I was obsessed with these similarities in style and I would go hunting for similar pieces, coming up with collages of three or four artists who work in styles so similar to each other that if you saw all of their work in one portfolio you wouldn’t for a second doubt that they were all made by the same person. Of course I’d never call anyone out on this – especially since this happens most with styles that are simple in a sense – so it isn’t difficult to believe, for example, that many different artists could independently come up with a similar simple, stylized watercolor rose. The more we stylize and simplify our motifs the bigger the chance that they’ll come out kinda looking alike each other.

      On the other side of that spectrum are people who put in many details and layers into their work and with those you see far fewer similarities in style, outside of actual purposeful copying. The more details you work into your piece, the more it moves away from the collective consciousness and your own artistic hand starts coming out more clearly. That is one reason that always draws me to complexity. (Also I just can’t leave things alone, haha. Doodling is not for me)

      What’s the story, by the way? Fairy tale archetypes are also a fascinating field of study – there is really only a handful of stories, they are all pretty ancient, and all we’ve done is retell them over and over with different characters and settings 🙂

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