When you accidentally plagiarize content

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“:

Plagiarized?

And here’s Gary Larson’s cartoon:

How birds see the world

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:

 Independent creation

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:

Responding to plagiarism on reddit

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.


 


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20 thoughts on “When you accidentally plagiarize content

  1. I’d say Sam Smith’s song sounds more like “Stand By Me”

    Also I love your work.

    My question is, is it still plagiarism if you hadn’t had the same title? I mean cartoons often have common themes within episodes. Isn’t this the same type of thing.

    I do like that you are looking out for the art community and such ( I have words that I can’t articulate atm)

    1. Interesting, yeah. The themes can’t be plagiarized, and nor can an idea. The difficulty is in defining how exactly an idea becomes protectable. If you did a comedy skit with two dudes dressed as birds pretending to bomb pedestrians with feces, that’s not plagiarizing because it only uses the idea of birds pooping on people’s heads. My comic is just too similar to the original. First, it’s a comic drawing, as is Larson’s. Second, the title is the same, essentially, which indicates the same idea. You can protect IP as a trademark, for example, if you want to sell cups and market them as “The best cup series”, you can protect the phrase in quotations. No one else can sell cups using that phrase. But if someone decides to start a comic called “The best cup series,” then it becomes more difficult for the cup seller to protect, since they had trademarked the phrase for selling cups, specifically. The law is not clear-cut, and IP lawyers have different interpretations of the same thing. It’s all quite confusing, and to be honest I’m not entirely sure I’m right. But I will call my panel plagiarism because I don’t want to dilute the importance of “Credit where credit’s due.”

      1. Thanks for the reply. Very interesting stuff. I can understand how it’s not black and white. It’s cool that you are willing to be humble and recognize a mistake and even take time to explain it.

        I hate to ask, but any advice on starting out in the world of art? I want to do voice acting mainly, but I’m also looking to write ideas for show/movies/ etc. (maybe even do some real acting some day)

        Thanks again!

        1. Voice acting, that’s cool! Hmm. Well, if I were to give advice about something I know little about, I’d be a jerk. So I’ll tell you what I do know, which may or may not help. Seems to me that a lot of discovery of art in general is happening via social media, and via popular channels on youtube, twitch, etc. So to go at it organically, create a channel, and start doing what you want to do. So, perhaps, make a youtube channel where you take clips from films or trailers or what-have-you, and overlay your own voice. Maybe start with a certain kind of thing, like… choose clips from animated films and cut on character’s voice out to put your own in there. You’ll have to credit the original creators of the piece of course. Find an angle that’s interesting, and go for it. If you can build an audience, you can use it later to show that people dig what you do (if you start making pitches to companies, or if you apply to voice acting jobs and need a portfolio). You might even run ideas past your followers to validate your project proposals. As for ideas of shows and movies, I’m not sure what to do there apart from sending pitches to the decision-makers. But, again, if you have a follower base in something, it gives you at least a little sway when you need it–a bit of authority. The point, I think, is to just start creating–do thing, and show it to people, and just keep going no matter what the response, but always be open to adapting, and take cues from constructive criticism. Sorry I can’t be more specific David!

          1. Nah I appreciate the reply! Thanks again and I hope you continue to be successful at what you do. But more importantly, I hope you enjoy it!

  2. A friend of mine once told me that it’s a positive thing when we have what we think are good ideas and then find out that someone else was successful with that same idea. It validates that the idea was in fact good (rather than just supposedly good), it says that we have the right cognitive processes to come up with good ideas, and it shows us how we can expand upon those ideas to improve the previously mentioned cognitive processes.

    Always though, credit where credit is due.

    1. I’ve thought about that before, too. I have an idea that I think can be significant (totally unrelated to comics), but I recently found a site that does it already. The only thing is, it’s not so successful, and I just think about how I could do it better! Not the case with this, Gary’s a comic genius manchildboygod.

  3. thats very noble of you to admit your mistake and credit the artist rather than make excuses

  4. I had a short story of mine drawn into question once. It involved a similar idea to a movie released at the same time. A reader questioned if I’d stolen the idea. I had heard about the movie but hadn’t seen it and didn’t know about the part they were referring to. In addition, when I wrote the story it was around the same time they wrote the script, which I had no way of reading. Once I watched the movie and explained to the reader, they were understanding (not like your unfortunate experience). But who’s to say the script writer and I were not both inspired by a scene from an earlier movie or book? I love Larson’s work but the idea of birds targeting people wasn’t even new when he created his strip. It could have been inspired by Hitchcock’s The Birds or a comment from a friend who had been pooped on. It’s more the artistic similarities I think they got so upset about, but they are both interpretations of a common idea. Don’t sweat it.

    1. It’s intriguing how easy it is for coincidence to play its part. The only disheartening part is blind aggression for righteous warriors of copyright law.

  5. OMG! I wrote this exact plagiarism blog post once when I copied The Far Side.
    Please send me lots of millions of moneys.

    Nah, dude. You did the right thing. You publicly wrote this post. Gary Larsen has received the credit and now consider it a homage.

  6. this is what happens when you just aren’t really all that creative or funny. you end up accidentally coming up with boring, simple ideas made by other boring, simple artists.

  7. Okay, as a fellow webcomic creator I feel the need to comment on this. I’ll admit that when I first saw this comic post, the old Far Side comic immediately came to mind. If that was all you had drawn, then yeah … I would have called plagiarism. But you expanded on it; you went further. You included other animals’ perspective, which I thought was clever. Larson’s original comic just had the bird’s view, and although it was drawn from the same perspective (bird’s eye view) it was a very different piece of art.
    Secondly, Larson’s comic is what… 20 years old? I’m not saying it’s okay to mine old content for comic ideas, but you’re bringing this humour forward for a new generation AND in a new media format (webcomic vs. traditional newsprint format). I think it’s maybe a little unrealistic to have to do a search for every new comic idea that pops into your head.
    Finally, I think the people who cry the loudest about copyright infringement are the ones that just sit there mindlessly consuming content and have NO idea how difficult it is to create new content on a regular basis that isn’t a derivative of something someone did or said or doodled at some point in the recorded history of mankind.
    Don’t beat yourself up … I personally don’t think you did anything wrong, and when your readers felt that you had you took the high road and did a classy thing.

  8. I agree with what both you and several commenters have said, that it would be an act of futility to do dissertation-length research to make sure that what you were coming up with was “original”. you credited Larson and that shows that you realized your error and did what you could to rectify it. I think the whole copyright thing might have been a good idea back when the only content was newspapers/ magazines, the internet makes keeping an eye on things like that almost impossible (in my opinion anyways). There’s an old saying that I think plays well into what you have been talking about in regards to coming up with “‘truly original'” content: ” There is nothing new under the sun.” All ideas are usually based upon something that the artist has seen or read or heard before. As for me I trace drawings and do deviations based on characters/content I like, I just try to remember to credit the original artist or author when I do so and I have yet to receive any notice telling me to cease and desist or whatever the legal term is for purposeful copyright breakers.

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