Creative inspiration vs. imitation – when does copying turn into plagiarism?

Most people would probably agree that rarely any of us reinvent the wheel. We are all surrounded by other people and their work, and they will undoubtedly influence our own creative process (otherwise we would have to walk around with blinkers and earplugs constantly). We often copy and then change until we feel the end-product is something we are reasonably happy with as artists. We use other people as role-models; their creative work inspires us, which in turn enables us to create something of our own.

If we are inspired by other people, where do we draw a line between inspiration and copying (and, to name the ugly side of it, plagiarism and copyright-infringement)?  
A simple graphic explaining the differences be...
A simple graphic explaining the differences between plagiarism and copyright issues (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
How does copying affect our creative work, and how does it affect the ones we copy?

These might seem rather “philosophical” questions, but they are something a lot of artists contemplate, and not always that easy and straightforward to answer, really blatant cases aside: If someone lifts content word by word (or just changes a bare minimum), they should of course be aware this infringes copyright/intellectual property, no matter how insignificant it seems. These things are never okay: They are unethical, unprofessional and quite frankly theft – there is really no other word for it.

Copying however has traditionally always played a big role in the arts. It was not always frowned upon in the same way it is today. I sometimes wonder if commercialising the arts more has also led to worrying more, specifically that others might get a “bigger slice of the cake” – and if they use “our” ideas for it, that’s surely not right, is it? But are they really our ideas? And how much “copying” can you get away with?

Through the years, I came to look at it from different angles, both as an artist and as a coach; both as someone seeking for inspiration and as someone being ripped off…

On being copied


“You gotta get a gimmick” from the musical Gypsy

Plagiarism, copyright-infringement and imitation have happened to me, and still happen today: Articles I wrote, web-content I provided, ideas I shared, “gimmicks” I used. I can remember especially one case, when someone asked me if I had copied the other person, although they had in fact lifted my content. I could thankfully diffuse that thought by showing records, but I can tell you: It didn’t feel great. What really saddens me is when people don’t even ask if they can use your stuff – you might be surprised, I might even say yes! And then, there is also this nagging doubt that what you do is maybe not that special at all, so why would you kick up a fuss (stupid, I know)?

I came to believe that you can hardly do anything about it (again: cases of severe plagiarism and copyright-infringement aside). It is probably a fact of life and putting yourself out there.

We can’t keep our creative ideas locked in our heads, just for fear of being copied, or “someone else doing better” (which is something we cannot influence anyway, so why waste time and energy on it?). Art and creative ideas need to be shared – that’s the point. This always bears the risk of copycats appearing. As some say: “If you don’t want other people to use your ideas, you better don’t communicate with anyone.” What a nightmarish idea! As nightmarish as constantly surrounding yourself with copyright-lawyers, and spending endless amounts of time on chasing up those little feline foes.

You could actually even turn this into a positive: If other people copy what you do, you must obviously do something right and be considered worth copying: You lead creatively, instead of perpetually following and always being one step behind. If nothing else, it spurs you on to come up with something new, and even better, again.

On copying and seeking inspiration

If we look at developmental psychology, copying is quite simply just what humans do: They learn by watching and imitating others – you could really call it primal.

If we look at the artistic/creative process, the case is obviously not that clear-cut:

  • Are we always aware when, what and whom we are copying?
  • Are creative thoughts even that unique, and can’t they happen in different places (or brains) at the same time?
  • Does copying stem from genuine admiration?
  • Or is it fear that our own work is not good enough?
  • Is there maybe even a bit of envy involved (someone else is doing well, so we try to do what they do and think we will do better as a result – alas, it doesn’t work that way)?
  • Is it just the path of least resistance/laziness (why batter your own brains if someone else has already done the work)?
  • Is it a way to deal with a creative block?
  • Or is it really not caring and being quite okay with ripping off other people – as long as we don’t get caught?

To be honest, I think it can be all, and various combinations of it. If I speak for myself: I read many books. I listen to a lot of music and used to perform a lot as well. I studied (and listened to) other artists in great detail. I will undoubtedly use some of the concepts and ideas I came across through the years, because so many people have done fantastic work, and it would just be silly not to build on it. They inspired me, even if I didn’t always agree, but they got my own mind racing and basically helped me to become the coach and artist I am today.

Where does the line between being inspired and ripping off become blurred though? Where does it start to become unethical? For me, it has, and always had, a lot to do with knowingly passing off other people’s work as your own – very often, the magic words can be “giving credit” (btw, even crediting alone is not always enough if you want to be on the safe side, but that’s another subject). That doesn’t mean however that we are not at risk of ripping off other people without consciously noticing. It is a subject I discussed with many of my clients through the years, and opinions on the matter are really diverse. Some are constantly scared they could infringe copyright and/or plagiarise, others don’t care one bit and are maybe too relaxed about it.

I re-tweeted an excellent article from Maria Popova’s Brainpicker a while ago: Austin Kleon on 10 things every creator should remember but we often forget

I couldn’t agree more, especially with the graphic about good theft vs. bad theft: If you find yourself leaning over very heavily to the right side of the graphic, you are walking on very thin ice – both creatively and legally.
We need input though to form your own ideas, and that’s why we need to use several people’s creative work as inspiration to create our own. One could say that the “parts” of a piece of art, or anything creative for that matter, are always copied and borrowed, from a certain chord sequence to a very specific painting technique.

Without copying first, no creative work would ever see the light of day. That’s not a blanket policy to steal though – and no, that’s not what Picasso meant ;))…

© Petra Raspel 2012

8 Comments

  1. Petra,

    What a well-articulated post; you really walked through the issues as well as they can be, given the very ambiguities you cite. Perhaps infringement vs. inspiration is like what the Supreme Court said about you-know-what (I won’t write the word because it might get caught in your spam filter), that you know it when you see it, but that “you” perspective can of course vary from person.

    I too have had my work both plagiarized and infringed, and I’ll confess that I have rarely taken action, and when I did it was simply an email asking that the work either be taken down or attributed to me. In most cases the individual complied, but I did get a hateful “what’s yours is mine in the digital world” email. So be it.

    You appropriately put in bold your key sentence: “You lead creatively, instead of perpetually following and always being one step behind.” That ties in with what Ilya Kaminsky said at my MFA residency (thank you for your thoughtful comment on that post). He felt it didn’t matter who came first, but if you’re always leading, you have the personal satisfaction of being followed, which is its own reward.

    Like

  2. This is a very eloquently written view of copying/inspiration. It’s been the source of discussion in one of my Facebook groups. I am going to share this on my own timeline so that other artists may read it. Thank you! You rock! Lisa

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s