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,
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
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
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
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,