a short series on plagiarism
Imitation is the basis of learning. Nobody starts out with a unique voice or point of view. Students are encouraged to imitate to develop their skill, and no beginning artist should feel embarrassed for copying the art they love.
Nevertheless, from a young age we develop a territorial sense of our creative effort. Children shame each other for being copycats. Adults do the same but behind one another’s back. Whether it be a repeated observation, joke or idea, everyone is sensitive to being copied.
For artists, imitation can be the source of great torment, yet many believe we live in a post-plagiarism society; that the internet and AI have ended personal attachment to ideas. They tell us everything’s a remix, so all influences are equally valid and all imitation fair game.
This perspective is espoused widely on behalf of commerce and tech companies. They would like us to believe that great art will one day emerge free from personal attachment, and that dependence on automation will lead us to creative utopia.
These ideas relieve us of a harsh reality where art involves risk and vulnerability, and where originality seems impossible. But what if the struggle of pursuing one’s own voice, and associated shame of plagiarism are necessary for anything valuable to get made?
As an artist, your survival often depends on your conceptual and aesthetic innovations. In a lifetime you may only have one or two which leave a mark, and recognition for these can make or break a career. How you arrive at these and make use of them is therefore vital to your continued existence.
There are coincidences. There is unconscious, accidental copying. There is inspiration, and there is plagiarism: copying significant elements, concealing their source and presenting them as original. The line between inspiration and plagiarism can be difficult to measure, but it is clear when we recognize the spirit of one person’s work presented as that of another.
Imitation can happen to anyone at any stage. It is likely if you’re starting out and inevitable if your work becomes popular. Every creative person is vulnerable to being ripped off, exploited, plagiarized—by commercial entities, other artists and AI. It is always more offensive when a more vulnerable creator’s work is employed by a larger entity. Being an inspiration is of little consolation when you can barely afford to survive.
Although common, plagiarism can have a powerful effect on the individual being copied, and can interfere with their motivation and relationship with work. As a result, it influences what kinds of ideas get made, in what forms, and who benefits from them.
Artists have few means to defend themselves against this. Because most creative inventions cannot easily be reduced to words, their theft isn't enforceable by law. For most, plagiarism is an emotional hurdle to overcome, not a legal one.
In the forthcoming short essays, I will go into detail on imitation and mitigating its negative effects. This is a free series, recommend it to anyone who might be interested. Thanks.