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Notes on Imitation
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.
Commerce Normalizes Theft
Artists tend to follow unwritten rules about plagiarism. It is tacitly understood that stealing is the most dishonorable thing one can do to another—you don’t do it because you wouldn't want it done to you. We take inspiration from the dedication, skill and bravery of our peers, but their creative inventions are territory to respectfully avoid.
The notion of artistic territory—of ownership over ideas—is unpopular to acknowledge. It’s usually framed as a restrictive force holding artists back. Like copyright, only something that benefits corporations and lawyers. How can anyone own something like a style, aesthetic, point of view? Surely everything should be “up for grabs”.
Let’s set the question of ownership aside for a moment, and consider how the world of commercially driven creativity borrows heavily from the work of young, uncredited, uncompensated artists, yet the opposite is rarely true. In the interests of making money, artistic territory is not there to be honored, but plundered.
To artists, commerce presents both a danger and opportunity. There is a sense that once your ideas are exposed to the world they will lose some of their power, and because plagiarism is so rife, this can happen with or without you.
In recent years, a philosophy justifying creative theft has emerged in books and on the creative lecture circuit. It professes that there are no new ideas - everything’s already been thought of, therefore ideas cannot be stolen. This line of reasoning is popular among professional plagiarists and those working in commercial forms who feel guilty about it. They cling to Picasso's pithy line ‘great artists steal’ because it’s good for business.
The sense that everything has been thought of is familiar to everyone, because so often it appears to be true. We can spend months or even years searching for an idea that hasn’t yet found expression in the world, yet when we find one, it is unmistakable. Only a mind for which inspiration is foreign could believe there’s no such thing.
Of course, all ideas can be atomized to unoriginal elements, it is how these elements are arranged, combined and transformed where originality is realized, and where ideas and identity become entangled—a relationship which is necessary for bringing them into reality.
The ownership that forms over ideas may be temporary and illusory—yet the constraints produced by this illusion are vital for motivating and diversifying creative output. Without ownership there is no territory, and without territory there is nothing to explore, admire, build upon, defend or destroy.
We might imagine that an absence of this struggle would “set creativity free”, but it merely leads to repetition, regression and mediocrity. An abundance of imitation, like inbreeding, poisons the entire system. Our collective bias towards originality means we are forced to look deeper within and beyond to create surprise.
Honoring the association between creators and their contributions to the creative landscape keeps it alive, and encourages further contribution. Undermining attribution and consent—rationalizing artistic exploitation—does the opposite.
Attribution Facilitates Survival
It is always easier for the imitator to follow behind the path of an innovator—to have others undertake the risk of exploration and expression and mimic their findings. When they do, they are often quick to cover up their tracks.
While the majority may not care who is behind what, or how original it is, artists tend to be aware of the chain of attribution in their field. They tend to know who came up with specific inventions and how they were transformed by others, because attribution facilitates their survival.
When we create something new, we know that if credited, our life could progress a step forward. Attribution is dignifying, motivating, respectful and rare. It is a focal point of practically all creative contracts, where legal battles over font sizes of names are not uncommon. For many it is more important than money.
Self advertisement is generally repellent in art, yet because it facilitates artist’s survival, it is pushed to the fringes of their expression. For this reason, signatures on paintings are pushed to the corners and credit sequences in films are kept to the very end.
Art—as opposed to science—does not need to credit sources. Artists have the benefit of being inspired by everything without the need to slavishly document and publish citations. This freedom is vital, yet it can be exploited to facilitate plagiarism.
In the Art World, there is enormous incentive for artists to portray themselves as unique and uninfluenced—extreme individuals who channel divine revelation. Professional artists usually credit dreams and visions over contemporaries who have had a greater influence, even when such influences are obvious.
In the world of commercial content, ideas are often laundered through artisans, recreated without acknowledgement of their source material.
Almost all tech companies have grown to power by facilitating the duplication and distribution of creative work, circumventing attribution and enforcing it only when legally required. This “break things and apologize later” attitude has trickled down to users, where many accounts conceal, crop or ignore sources to benefit from their value.
AI companies do this on a civilizational scale, harvesting creative work in order to synthesize it—attribution being also diffused by diffusion models.
The pressures of commerce and progress of automation increasingly diminish attribution to facilitate imitation. Like anyone, artists want to play a game in which risk and effort is rewarded, not exploited without consent or credit. The more unfair this game becomes, the less likely anyone will play.
The Pain of Plagarism
When your work is plagiarized, you experience it physically. It can be painful even when you are only partially ripped off or used as inspiration. Even coincidences can hurt, because they dilute the power of our ideas, leaving no one to blame but ourselves. Imitation can consume thought in a way that seems irrational to others, but this feeling is not wrong or unusual. Our ideas are powerfully linked to our identity, and we can’t help but feel injustice and frustration when forced to witness others run with them.
Every idea relates our unique experience of life, our particular set of skills, and can emerge from our most private and personal depths. Each represents a concern we had and a solution we found to it. Our ideas came into being only because we spent time and effort, and weathered risk and uncertainty during our brief time on the planet.
Being copied pulls us out of the godlike creative mode and into that of a pathetic survivor. It reveals the contours of our ego by showing us how we are holding on to what we did in the past and how we're still dependent on it. It can poison our feelings towards our work, and make us fearful about sharing it in the future.
In these moments, it’s important to not give in to feelings of powerlessness or victimhood, even though you are powerless, and a victim. Obsession over being copied is wholly unproductive and must be avoided. You have to allow the feeling to pass through you and get back to doing what you love. Any time spent worrying about it is time away from hearing the voice of the Universe.
You may be tempted to contact the imitator, or protest about them online or to others. This may not produce the outcome you want. Behind the screen you are likely to find another artist, more vulnerable than you, and going after them will do nothing to restore your courage.
Your priority is always to protect your relationship with your work. The source of your creative energy is more valuable than anything you have already made, and your ability to continue is more important than your ability to defend your past.
Our ideas need us to feel ownership over them in order to steward them to completion, but the moment they have performed themselves for the world, they are no longer ours, and we have to let them go.
If something you created was used to enrich and enfame others while leaving you behind—I am sorry. You have to let it go. If your idea becomes memeified, overly commercialized or mainstream, you have to let it go, and move on.
Learning to hold on to and then let go of ideas is vital to creative continuity. Every now and again, it matters, but in the long run, it will not. The natural path of any successful idea is to become continuous with reality. Just as we don’t spend time thinking of the millions of ancestors that brought us to the present moment, everything we make depends on countless innovations by those we have forgotten.
The only way to protect against imitation is to make the greatest version of your idea and ensure it reaches as wide an audience as possible, and then keep going.
Select ideas which are meaningful to you personally, then push each to their absolute limits. They will find this with or without you, so get on with it. Then, put your name on it, and ensure it finds an audience.
Pushing your work out there is never easy, it makes you into a target for whatever comes next, nevertheless, if you wish to sustain your ability to make things, it has to be done.