The gentle art of plagiarism: artists, authors and ownership

11 November 1996, London; Authors' Club

How will art and text survive in the electronic age? asked the announcement of this meeting, where new online ways of risks to creative work from the user community were to be shown, and the boundaries between theft, homage and plagiarism explored. Jane Dorner, writer, former editor of The Electronic Author and a Director of the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society, demonstrated the dangerous ease of electronic manipulation in an interactive lecture with live Internet illustration.

Plagiarism – taking this to be the unpermitted copying of others' ideas and their expression – has always been feasible regarding text; digitization merely makes it infinitely easier. In a sixth-century instance, St Columba copied out - by hand - Abbot Finian's gospel. Finian took his complaint of copyright infringement to court, and the king ruled in favour of the originator of any work. No such strenuous labours are now needed for reproduction of text. Global access through the Internet, and instant replication by digital means, make intellectual property infinitely vulnerable. This astronomical increase in the ease of an always-possible offence is paralleled by the consequent increase in complexity of attempts to control electronic copyright both practical and legal.

The full texts of books may be placed on the Net for advertising purposes, or to secure widest spreading of their message. Cutting, pasting, and printing out all then become practicable uncontrollably. Since there are variations in the copyright provisions of different countries, though, there may be texts available that have different legal access for different communities. A warning notice may appear, thus:

Warning! Restricted Access!
The following books are ... in the public domain in many countries ... However, they remain copyrighted [in others] ... Do NOT download or read these books online if you or your system are in a country where copyright protections can extend more than 50 years past an author's death ...

– a legal warning, dependent in practice solely on the users' compliability. If one should ignore the warning and read the prohibited text - who is breaking the law? The user? The party that loaded the text onto the Internet? The service provider?

Not only does the ease of global access to texts make plagiarism more likely, but changing cultural attitudes can seem to lend it respectability. Roland Barthes propounds the well-regarded thesis that culture needs a shared dialect, while the author fades in the transition to intertextuality. This new morality sets particular puzzles in the academic world. Where plagiarism used to be held the supreme academic sin, now with the new intertextual thinking colleges are unsure how to deal with non-originality in an exam context. The `School sucks' Internet site is known to provide essays that students may download and reproduce as their own: no legal offence there.

As for art, digitization allows images to be manipulated in unprecedented ways. Once any work of art has been digitized, all control over it is lost, with respect to integrity of reproduction, proper use, and even the expectation of proper copyright reward. We saw icons used for commercial advertisements, adapted, altered or reassembled — figures from several different artistic sources grouped together – or merchandized in ways their creators would not approve. Magritte's `Golgonde' advertised Royal Mail; Man Ray's `Violon d'Ingres', constipation tablets. Two-dimensional pictures were reformed and vulgarized as three-dimensional plastic models. The most abused icons from art are the Mona Lisa and Edvard Munch's `The Scream'. Protest may prove vain; when many spin-offs or parodies of the original work are seen to be sold with no profit to their first creator, the aggrieved artist may eventually resort to negotiating licences for these faits mal accomplis.

Demonstrating the ease of the offence, the speaker lifted – or downloaded – the Mona Lisa from the electronic Louvre in digital form. Vandal-like, she made successive radical changes to Leonardo's original version, playing with the paintbox tools, cutting and pasting, revolving, deleting, transposing, resiting: everything but making improvements. She displayed another transformed version of Mona which even enjoys current copyright protection denied to Leonardo himself.

The creative community needs to safeguard original works of art, held Dorner – but how may it be done? And how may the Internet community be persuaded that the manipulative `use' of text, image or idea may come perilously close to `abuse'?

Given that there are said to be only ten fiction plots in the world, that the notes of music and their possibilities of arrangement are mathematically limited, and that art has always drawn on previous images, must re-presentation be wrong? Does the concept of fair use make popular images fair game? Dorner listed terms that might be taken as synonyms implying plagiarism: artistic licence, coincidence, commercial misappropriation, cultural tradition, downloading into the unconscious, forgery, homage, iconoclasm, intertextuality, parody, postmodernism, transcription. Which are valid excuses, legal, honest and truthful?

Test cases of the law protecting originators wishing to retain control over their work have tended to be settled out of court, in view of the huge potential expense the complexity of the legal and technical wrangling would entail. Who is responsible for what is on the Internet? Variations in national laws confuse the issues further. In our global electronic village, we await urgently-needed, internationally-harmonized, right laws.

The latest Copyright Act gives authors the moral right to object to derogatory treatment of their work. The latest technology bestows in abundance the means to violate this right.

Hazel K. Bell
This article appeared in Arts Club Journal , Spring 1997, pages 26-7