There’s an Intellectual Property attorney (IP lawyer) in my family, so I grew up with a penchant for being aware of a creator’s intellectual rights to their content. It makes me cringe whenever I see blatant examples of theft, where one piece obviously copies from another. I hate it. So when it happens to me, I hate it all the more. I’ve been copied before. It grinds my gears. I wish this article was about what to do when someone else plagiarizes your art. It’s not. Yesterday, I found myself on the other side of Right. I accidentally plagiarized a cartoon by one of my favorite cartoonists of all time, Gary Larson. He created The Far Side, an anthropomorphic world that is known among all the comic and cartoon legions of established and aspiring artists. (On a side note, there’s an awesome unofficial Facebook page that posts The Far Side cartoons that I follow).
The worst thing about this is that I’ve seen the comic I accidentally plagiarized before.
Here’s the bird panel from yesterday’s comic, “How Some Animals See the World“:
And here’s Gary Larson’s cartoon:
To add insult to injury, even the title I came up with is the same as Larson’ caption. Needless to say, I was pretty damn bummed out when users on Reddit started to point it out.
Classifying this kind of art plagiarism
So herein lies the predicament. I did not know I was plagiarizing, so should it still be called plagiarism? The answer is a resounding “yes“. Just because I did not know what I was doing does not mean it should be called anything else. There is a term that fits this bill, however. It’s called “Unintended plagiarism“. To some, it’s a euphemism, but to me its descriptive of intent. What I did was not malign. It was unintentional. I did not actively and knowingly copy. But this does not change the fact that the bird seeing targets on people’s heads had already been done before.
What I did wrong
One user did not mince words on Reddit, and called me a plagiarizer, and unprofessional. Both are true in this specific case, regardless of whether or not the user came off as a dick. What I did wrong is simple enough: I did not look to see if the idea had been done.
I did not look to see if the idea had been done
If we’re going to define a professional cartoonist as someone who does heavy research to ensure their content is original, then fine. But I do not think cartoonists should be held to the high standards of scholarly protocol, the kind of procedural structure that secures without a doubt the originality of the idea in question. Cartoons are difficult to search unless they’re optimized.
This is where I disagree with the comment on Reddit that a professional cartoonist “should be aware of every single one of Larson’s comics.” Does a musician have to know every song from every famous musical talent ever? No way. And purported unintended plagiarism happens all the time, especially, for some reason, with Tom Petty (who by the way came out to say “these things can happen” in defence of Sam Smith).
In my case, once I saw Larson’s How Birds See the World, my mind immediately recalled having seen it before. Leave it to a neuroscientist to explain how my mind could recall it then, but not tell me in the act of drawing my comic that it had already been done. It could be a case of cryptomnesia, which would mean that the comic I drew was my mind delivering the idea based on something I’d seen before, and telling me it was original.
Still, my mistake is that I did not at least conduct a preliminary search. My mistake is also my defense. The idea is so easy, not only would it be easy to find if it had been done before, but it would not surprise me to see manifestations of the same idea again and again in the future. In our time, and from what we know to be true thanks to the internet’s power of dissemination, Gary Larson was the first to have the idea of targets on people heads from a bird’s perspective. But to think analytically, it is likely that the idea had been thunk before. This has a name, you know. It’s:
The idea is that the same idea will occur to different people throughout time, organically. Many ideas have been had before, which will be had again. And in an exponentially growing population hyper-connected by the internet and social media, we’re going to see a LOT of what may or may not be copies of content. This is a great blog post by an IP guru that highlights a case of independent creation. The point, is that your original idea has not improbably been thought by someone else before you, at some point in time.
Give credit where credit is due
I’ve taken the opportunity given my mistake to talk about ideas, intellectual property, intention, retention… but of course I do not want to distract from the main point: I drew a panel that had clearly already been done by someone, and their original version was readily available for me to find had I looked.
So what can I do now that I’ve accidentally plagiarised someone else’s art?
The first thing I did was address the comments where I could find them, to agree that it was my mistake:
The second thing is to apologize publicly:
I’m sorry for plagiarizing your idea, Gary!
The third thing is to give credit where credit is due. When Tom Petty’s publisher pointed out the similarities in Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me”, which sounds an awful lot like Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down”, Smith put Petty as a credit on the song, all in good faith.
So that’s what I’m going to do. I’ve placed a credit on the comic page to Gary Larson.
It feels bizarre to be on this side of things. I’ve found lots of derivative works of my comics. Mostly I don’t mind as long as there’s a credit. One thing we as artists don’t need, however, is ornery and righteous people calling plagiarism on other artists in a rude and negative way. Now that I’ve done this, I feel solidarity with artists who are attacked for unoriginal ideas. Between artists, I’ve only experienced amicability, and if someone does something that’s too similar to a comic of mine, I’ll contact them to talk about it, not to read them the riot act. It’s a better world when we’re kind to each other.
*Affiliate links may appear on this page