Friday, May 27, 2011
Twitter Scream: Plagiarism, Oh My!
Note: Although this post has absolutely nothing to do with chickens, it does relate to the other half of my sabbatical project, which is on "plagiarism." So it's goin' here.
One thread of my plagiarism project concerns the weirdness around notions of "originality," "individuality," and "ownership." We (westerners) have, I think, a tendency to see our actions and their results as gloriously unique.
Without belaboring the whole western-cult-of-the-individual concept, suffice it to say that we can hardly be blamed for this tendency--it's as "natural" to us as allowing 18 inches of speaking space per person in casual conversation (and just as arbitrary).
In actual practice, people come up with similar ideas all the time; we're in a similar environment, subject to similar influences, so why wouldn't we? And yet we remain convinced that "our" idea is our property.
I was first struck by this phenomenon several years ago while reading a thread on a Writing Center listserv (primarily used by college writing center coordinators, tutors, and composition teachers). One participant, a comp instructor, was outraged because another instructor had "stolen" her personal quote that she always put at the bottom of her handouts. The instructor was asking other listserv participants how she should broach this obvious lack of professional etiquette if not downright illegal behavior.
The quote? Something along the lines of "Writing is never done; it is just due."
Now, I'd heard that quote in many different versions over the course of my career, and I was pretty sure it wasn't from one of this instructor's handouts. So I did a Google search and found references to the same sentiment going back to at least the 1940s. Possibly the instructor had come across one of these versions, forgotten it, and then remembered it later as her own. Or maybe she came up with the idea "independently." Every writer knows the feeling of not having enough time to "finish" a piece; every writer knows that the deadline is often what determines "finished." It makes sense, then, that among thousands of individuals having this same experience, wanting to express it succinctly, a few would come up with something like "writing is never done; it is just due."
Recent case: Today (now yesterday, 26 May), Twitter (and subsequently, the rest of the 'net) went nuts with corporate hate when Etsy artist Stevie Koerner claimed her design of silver state pendants with a heart cut-out was stolen by Urban Outfitters. On her blog, i make shiny things, Koerner says that Urban Outfitters not only stole the design, but the name, and some of her copy.
Comparing the designs on Koerner's blog (the Urban Outfitters page is no longer up), you can see that the designs are almost identical. But is one so unique that the other can be called a rip-off? State charms have been around for ages. The outline of a state is not a work of art (at least not anymore). And the "I heart X" sentiment (or product name) can hardly be claimed to be original to Koerner. In fact I ♥ New York and I ♥ Vermont have been cliches for as long as I can remember.
As for Koerner's claims about the lifted copy, I was baffled until the Huffington Post enlightened me. Apparently "wear your locale love" (Urban Outfitters) is a blatant rip-off of "wear your love" (Koerner). A Google search of "wear your love," though, brings up over 13 million hits (many in reference to jewelry and clothing). Maybe not so original after all.
To support her claim that Urban Outfitters "have stolen designs from plenty of other artists," Koerner includes a link to a Village Voice blog piece, ironically itself a patchwork of other source material (linked, but mostly unnamed): The Brooklyn Paper points to a ribcage pendant, a shark jaw necklace--these objects are even more generic. Stylelist highlights a "legalize it" maple-leaf design . . . hmm, maybe they both ripped off the marijuana leaf guy? The Consumerist presents perhaps the best case against Urban Outfitters, a rip-off of Johnny Cupcake's cupcake-dropping-bomber t-shirt design (especially as he had submitted a similar design to Urban Outfitters). Then again, even this article points out "the whole 'dropping a bomb of x' concept isn't really new."
I think that as artists/writers/designers, we can be more aware of the cultural conditioning that casts us as "individuals" and denies our common ties. We can be more honest with ourselves about how "original" our stuff is. And we can be willing to acknowledge that even if we never thought of it before, it doesn't mean someone else hasn't. Jumping to conclusions about being ripped-off, whether it's plagiarism or design-stealing, diminishes the seriousness of these offenses. It also makes a lot of well-meaning people look pretty foolish.
Post-script: Just came across this wonderful post on the blog Regretsy, which goes into more detail on the "originality" question. Go read it right now!