When is Plagiarism OK?

Plagiarism is never OK, but it is rampant in our Internet connected society. If you can save an image onto your Pinterest board, share someone else’s image on Instagram, or share another’s article then you are sharing someone else’s work. It is allowed… sort of… In fact new age publishing empires are built on republishing other people’s work — with an implied permission and the potential of taking the revenues from the original creator.

However, plagiarism is taking the work of another and claiming it as your own. This can be imagery, text and even ideas!

So, if someone copies a logo (or a major part), then it is. If it someone else’s poster and you redid the whole thing, it is. If it is a slab of text from someone’s site, it is.

Wikipedia defines it as: “…wrongful appropriation” and “stealing and publication” of another author’s “language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions” and the representation of them as one’s own original work.

In other words, it is committing a fraud.

My first experience with plagiarism is when I read a poem in high school. A fellow student copied the lyrics of a song and put it up for a piece of work for school. Little did he know that it would get published in the local school paper. Little did he know that it would go to other schools and other organisations. However, he was lucky — as far as I knew… He never got found out. The 80s didn’t have the Web for easy checking of these things.

I will never admit to — as a graphic designer, to plagiarism! In fact, I like to believe that I skirted successfully around the problem… However, I know that young designers look at Google Image Search as a free stock photo library or even a place where ideas are borrowed.

I am sure that some readers would know about the issues that Cold Play have experienced with some of their songs — especially one that sounds mysteriously like a Joe Satriani song (listen to this or this — it is really fun!). In my humble non-music trained ear, it seems a bit more than a sample…

My most recent brush with this topic centers around a poster done for a school project — again, in the school environment. The poster was for a Macbeth play and the poster was a blatant knock-off of another. The ideas, the execution and even some of the creative elements were so close to the original poster, it could only be deemed ‘the same’, even if it had been redrawn. The main idea had been appropriated, but many design elements were also borrowed. Even if the main idea was taken but the execution was completely different, then it would be original enough to have been the student’s own. But alas, it was a copy — a fraud.

Lucky that some of these experiences happened in school. If it were up to me, the poster would fail instantly. F… F Minus even (but that is me being harsh). It would cause me to create a lecture within my school about plagiarism — what it is, what are the grey areas and what is blatantly fraud. In a school environment — especially within the area of writing, art and design, it is really important to know what is allowed and what isn’t.

In a world where ideas, creation and works are so easily copied, it is important that we teach our students what is allowed — not only to protect wider works, but to protect them from themselves


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