Updated: Dec 17, 2019
“I feel like I've seen that before!” It's a thought, and a feeling, that has probably crushed into each of our minds from time to time. As a creator, those words can bring an overwhelming sense of despair; should someone say it about your work. There’s an old saying that goes: “there is nothing new under the sun.” With this in mind, where should we draw the line? At what point is the grey area between using similar inspirations, and legitimately plagiarizing another's work?
This article is my first for you all, and I know that you are probably wondering “Who is this guy? Why is he talking about plagiarism?” My name is Aaron Dowen, and I am a 20 something year old nerd who was formerly an English and Writing teacher, with a Master’s degree in Education. I am also a writer, musician, and a graphic designer, which means I will hit this topic from multiple angles.
Plagiarism is nothing new.
With this quick introduction out of the way; let's put on our velcro sneakers and go on this journey together. It's a heavy topic, but one that we, as a creative community, should not keep shying away from. In one of many conversations regarding this topic, I was speaking with an illustrator who has worked for Marvel and DC (among others); about what is acceptable and not acceptable as far as “taking inspiration” from someone else. He shared with me that, often times, while walking around at different shows and cons, he can pick out who a person copied their art from. I asked him how he views this, and was given an interesting response. He said that if an artist free-hands a character, physically putting the pencil to the paper, without tracing, then that is their art. Now, don't confuse what I am saying here, because he was NOT saying that this is “original” art.
A general rule of thumb in writing is that anything less than 15% of copied work will not normally register as plagiarism. For teachers and writers, there are numerous websites that you can paste a written work into, and it will search all over the internet to find sources that it may have been taken from. This is a beautiful thing, as it keeps a writer mostly honest.
How does this bleed into other creative avenues though, like art?
It is substantially harder to look at art and judge its authenticity, because we have to first decide what it would mean for a piece to be both “original” and to be “authentic”. First, let's take a look at what it means to be “original.” Merriam Webster provides the definition of original as: “a work composed firsthand.” This is a very conclusive definition. Let's take a look at this definition in a practical situation.
Let's say you were standing in front of Alex Ross’ table, looking at one of his prints. Now, 15 feet away, at another table, an artist has a print that looks pretty darn similar. They aren't exactly the same, but every character is posed the same, the colors are similar, maybe a couple of lines are drawn differently, and then a different background is put in. According to the definition of “original”, only one of these two prints is true to form. The MAJOR problem comes in when a consumer opts to purchase the look-alike because it is cheaper. I am all for a good deal, especially at cons, but you just sucker-punched the original artist.
Ever been punched in the heart?
Let's make this thing a little more personal. So, you’re an artist, spending years working on your craft, struggling to sell prints and to get noticed. Your DeviantArt page is healthy, but it's not exactly where you want it to be. You are nervous at cons, but you are excited as well, because this art is YOU. It is who you are, put on paper. There were hours of work and retouching, throwing out the duds and restarting… Here it is, your kick-butt Spider-Man print! You know, the one you woke up from dreaming of. It has been selling pretty well at the cons, and everyone has been making kind comments about it. It's been a long weekend, and you finally have a chance to walk around a bit and see what everyone else has for sale; maybe even try a little networking. Then, you see it from a distance… and for a split second you think you had ended up back at your booth. As you get closer, you see your print, with a few details changed, and someone else behind a booth selling it. YOUR ART! How would you feel, or react? How about if you watched somebody buy it right in front of you?
The blurred lines.
The problem is apparent, obvious, and it needs correction. We shouldn't be stealing each other's ideas, no matter what level of popularity another creator is on (this goes for writers and musicians/songwriters as well). The problem is that the people doing this feel justified that their work is still “authentic”. One of Merriam Webster’s definitions for “authentic” states: “conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features”. So, in the reality of this definition, an artist can still make an authentic piece based off of someone else's original. It isn't a question of whether you can or cannot copy someone's work, even if you change little features; but it is a question of should you?
Here we come to an impasse, it is at this point your morality and values should take over. For me, It begs the question: what is stopping you from coming up with your own concepts? If you want to make a piece inspired by someone else's work, to pay homage to them, then that is awesome. Should you be selling it? That is a different issue, one that seems to have become more and more popular lately. I struggle with comparing art and writing, because of how differently I see them presented in today's market. This I do know; if I took a story about Captain America, changed the character's name to “Bill Rodgers”, and left most of the action and main ideas the same, I would get sued. Why is art not being held to a similar level of honesty and integrity?
I hope this article gives us all something to think about, both as creators and consumers. Give credit where credit is due, be honest, be original, and be a decent human being. If you are at a con and see two similar prints, I say ask the artists who did the original… Let's shake things up, and make sure we are representing our nerdy, geeky, beautiful lives in the best possible light.
Do well, friends!
EDITOR'S NOTE: A few image examples have been added by various original artists and their counterparts. See if you can pick out the originals from the reproductions. (hover for results)