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Plagiarism or creative influence?

Published: 22/07/2016 | AUTHOR: Toby Shelley

I must not copy

Ever thought you’ve had an amazing creative idea, only to find that someone else has already done it? Or maybe you’ve been aware that you’ve been heavily influenced by something you’ve seen or heard when creating something new?

Plagiarism has featured heavily in the media recently, but where is the line between plagiarism and inspiring creativity?

Plagiarism and creative influence

Look at the recent advert for the Audi R8. A nice original idea for how to demonstrate the handling of a powerful car you might think, especially as regulation dictates that you can’t show it speeding and going very fast in a straight line. But wait, look at Ferrari’s showing in the opening ceremony of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin. These two stunts clearly have the same theme (a car doing a doughnut). Though to what extent has Audi copied Ferrari, if at all? Where is the line drawn between inspiration or playing homage to an idea, and plagiarism or copyright infringement?

If you come up with an original piece of work, then you don’t need to head to a patent office to register for copyright protection. It’s something that is automatically attributed to music, books, art and even recipes, in fact pretty much anything that requires a bit of creativity to produce. However, a new idea can only be judged to infringe a previous idea’s copyright if it’s artist has been exposed to the original, thus often making copyright infringement cases often quite open to interpretation and not very clear cut.

Plagiarism in pop culture

Examples of copyright infringement can be seen in the music industry relatively recently. Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams were famously indicted for their song Blurred Lines, which was judged to have infringed Marvin Gaye’s Got to Give It Up. Pharrell Williams who wrote the song argued that it was the soundtrack of his youth and that he didn’t use any of the track to create Blurred Lines, but the courts ruled in favour of Gaye’s family and estate holders and ordered a settlement to the tune of $7.4 Million. Debate will continue as to whether this is a fair result or not. Were they profiting off someone else’s hard work? Or merely paying an affectionate tribute to a great of the past? There are only so many notes and chords available in the world so there is bound to be repetition of melody from time to time, however the line needs to be drawn somewhere.

The courts came to a different conclusion however with the song Happy Birthday. Warner/Chappell were collecting royalties for the use of this in TV, radio and films until the courts ruled that it should be part of the public domain and available to anyone free of charge. Many will think that common sense prevailed.

So all this poses the question about whether this good for creatives? Ever had that feeling where you’re trying to come up with a new idea that you can’t get an old idea out of your head? And it ends up influencing all your new ideas subconsciously? This can stifle creativity somewhat, as creatives might feel weary of infringing someone’s copyright albeit subconsciously.

Plagiarism in historic context

Copyright only lasts for 70 years after the idea originator’s death. So if you’re really stuck for ideas perhaps the history books wouldn’t be the worst place to look. In fact, if you want to direct a hit play, why not just take one of Shakespeare’s? Nothing is stopping you as they are completely free from any copyright restrictions. In fact, you might not even need to feel bad about it, that’s if you are to believe the conspiracy theory that Shakespeare himself copied his work from Francis Bacon and passed it off as his own.

Plagiarism in the digital age

One of the great things about digital is that it has given us new and exciting formats for content creation. From social media to blogs and websites, content is everywhere and while the main goal for many content creators is to get their work seen and shared by as many people as possible, what has this done for plagiarism?

Snapchat recently came under fire after it was accused of stealing filters from makeup artists. With so many people and brands on social media, surely plagiarism in its many forms and levels, is going to increase?

Again, the argument can be made for where the line is drawn between inspiration, imitation and stealing, but really shouldn’t the greater argument be – does it matter if, at the end of the day, it leads to a more creative and collaborative world?

Having said that, intellectual property laws to protect against plagiarism are arguably vital for creatives and the industry, as their ideas (and their jobs) are protected without the need to spend time and money registering them, thus incentivising the need for the best companies to hire great creative talent.

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