Plagiarism: The lowdown

Plagiarism: The lowdown

By Caroline Roberts 03/11/11

In art, everything is borrowed – but when does inspiration cross the line into stealing? Just this year, Beyoncé, Bob Dylan and Johann Hari were all accused of plagiarism. Caroline Roberts investigates the issue, and suggests how you can protect your work...

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but, judging by the steady stream of plagiarism accusations in the media, not everyone sees it that way.

Earlier this year, Independent columnist and interviewer Johann Hari admitted cutting and pasting bits from other journalists’ interviews and his subjects’ books into his own articles. As a result he was forced to take some “gardening leave” and hand back the Orwell Prize for journalism he won in 2008. But plagiarism isn’t just a textual issue; it affects all creative areas from visual art and web design to music and choreography.

Recent alleged copycats include Bob Dylan, who exhibited painting bearing than a passing resemblance to certain famous photographs, and Beyoncé (see video, below), who’s been accused of nicking concepts and dance routines from other works for her videos. They all made the basic error of failing to acknowledge their sources. Of course, every artist draws inspiration from others. But it’s a grey area and it’s all too easy to overstep the mark if you’re not clued-up on what’s permissible.

The internet means it’s much easier to copy things than it was in the past, says Amy Robinson, manager of Spot the Difference, a project and blog on arts plagiarism run by the Visual Arts Data Service at the University for the Creative Arts. “But,” she adds, “there’s also a lot more people out there scrutinising what others are doing. There are these name and shame websites springing up such as You thought we wouldn’t notice and the Facebook group Designers and Illustrators Against Plagiarism and there’s much more debate.” It’s important for all creatives to educate themselves about the issues, she says.

Firstly, there’s a difference between plagiarism, which is an ethical issue, and copyright infringement, which is potentially a crime if you benefit financially from it, explains Henry Lydiate, an arts lawyer and consultant. “Copyright law protects the manifestation or expression of the ideas, not the ideas themselves. All art forms are automatically subject to copyright as long as they are recorded in a fixed form, which could be digital.”

He adds: “All art is stealing, to some extent. The question you need to ask yourself is: am I artistically satisfied that I haven’t just used somebody else’s idea but have transformed it into something of my own?” If in doubt, you should seek permission from the copyright holder and credit the work. To make things clearer, Lydiate has collaborated on Artlaw TV, a series of videos exploring the issue, which appear on the website of the support organisation Artquest, along with an archive of his articles on Art and the law. 

And what about protecting your own stuff? Although copyright exists automatically, many people prefer the flexibility of Creative Commons, which provides a variety of free licenses to set out to what extent you are prepared to share your work.

If it gets stolen by a big name or corporation, there’s not a whole lot you can do about it unless you happen to have a few million to fund the court case. But if you’re brave you can always call them out, as artist and illustrator Hidden Eloise did last year when one of her images appeared on a range of Paperchase products. The topic trended on Twitter, although all she ended up with was an apology from the designer who copied it in the first place.

“I’ve tried to focus on the positive side,” she says. “Certainly my art received some exposure during that time with people coming to my shop and buying explicitly as a form of support.” So, at least it can generate some free publicity.

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