The P Word: Plagiarism

By Peter

Earlier this week I was trying to search for some inspiration on a logo project and stumbled onto an image that was ours but wasn't ours. Yup, I found that someone plagiarized one of our prints. The dreaded "P"-word. Sure they did some watercolor overlay in Photoshop but it was unmistakably ours. Ever happened to you?

To date, this Simply Bicycle image is our most ripped-off image!

To date, this Simply Bicycle image is our most ripped-off image!

If it hasn't, take a look around the internet. Go to your site or any site, find an image, right-click on it and copy the image address. Now just type in google.com on your browser, choose the images option, and paste the image address to the search bar or upload the image. When your results pop up you see a list of hits as well as a line at the top that says "For matching images, try search by image". If you click there you'll get another list. Scroll down to see if they're familiar friendly places. Another option on the bottom of that page is to search for "visually similar images". 

It can be fascinating to see how images worm their way around the internet. I usually see a bunch of hits for Pinterest and they all give proper credit. On occasion I've discovered that someone was using our art for a community event, a poster contest, or claiming it as their own art and selling it. 

Olly Moss is a designer/illustrator who has made some very memorable images. His style is widely copied and parodied. Many people have come to his defense when they feel like someone has crossed the line and infringed upon his work. He formulated a very surprising response to such an instance when people claimed a set of prints tread too closely to his style. "These are parodies. There are no legal grounds for dispute. If there were, I would not enforce them." He goes on to say that once you put your work out there for people to see it's fair game. For people that get too caught up in ownership "it brings them nothing but misery and constant frustration." He goes on to say that "imitation and parody as… a reward you've earned" for doing good work. 

When I decided that I wanted to write about this I wanted a different point of view. So I wrote to one of my design professors from college, Karen Kresge.  She made too many good points to just cut and paste here so I'll post a link to her full piece and try to paraphrase as best as possible. Her first point was that not all plagiarism is malicious. There are people that are simply fans of your work. They get a kick out of trying to make things like you do. They may want to share your work but lack the etiquette to give you credit. There are people that mistakenly regurgitate your work. There are people asked by clients to make something like your work. Some grey-ish areas that any of us could easily find ourselves in given the right set of conditions. Last but not least there are the cheaters. Rotten apples convinced they can do it and just get away with it. The sad thing is that they're kind of right. There's just so many ways to have access to media that you'll never know when someone lifts your work and claims it as their own. Especially if the theft never exists online. Sure it's easier than ever to search for images on the internet and track them down, but you have to also have the time and energy to do it. Who wants to do that? The drive is to make new things and be creative, not make one thing and fight like hell to protect it.

Eleanor and I discussed these things in order to help me flesh out ideas before I started writing. She humbled me by saying that I shouldn't be too proud about being "original". She reminded me that no one is above accusations of plagiarism. A couple of years ago grainedit.com did a profile on Eleanor and her work. It felt like a big deal at the time. A very positive thing. Then came the comments. Many people were generous with their praise, but others were very quick to vilify. The "haters" took Eleanor to task, claiming that she was ripping off Charley Harper. This was difficult to deal with. In our mind the work was unique. Influenced by but very different than Mr. Harper's work. In the end it was a wake up call. It forced Eleanor to take a long look at her own work and her esthetic. It was very difficult to create for a while after that because of the thought "does this look too much like Charley?" ringing in her head. But she worked through it and is better for it. 

Ms. Kresge (always the teacher) left me with a good closing thought: "a thief is a thief and I suppose their career can’t be in a very good place, and can’t possibly be moving in a positive direction if they can’t come up with original ideas. In the end, we can always pity the plagiarist and move our own work towards loftier goals." 

Next time: What to do when someone steals your work