Tuesday, 4 August 2009

To catch a plagiarist

When you see a story of plagiarism these days it's not so much that the act took place that surprises you, more that the person in question thought that she could get away with it - especially when it seems the work she plagiarised was sourced from the web.

Samantha Beeston is an award-winning textile designer, and recent graduate. By all accounts, she seems to be going places. Well done her.

Except... well... various images that won her her prizes, as well as quite a number that until recently were posted on her personal website, were never hers in the first place. Instead they belonged to, and indeed were created by Lauren Nassef, a Chicago-based illustrator.

Fine. This is a mash-up culture now, you might be tempted to say, and she seems to be of the generation that has grown up with such things, so has she simply repurposed Lauren Nassef's images for use within a different medium? Have they, for instance, been cleverly juxtaposed with images of her own, or even someone else's, to make some kind of political point or original art? Artistic fair use, and all that?

Well, no. If only.

Just take a look at this page, if you haven't done so already. A minor colour change here, a new combination of Lauren's images there, but that's about as close to appropriation as it gets. It's such straightforward copying that it's hard to imagine even Samantha Beeston thought she was performing some kind of mash-up; though, as yet, it doesn't appear she's commented.

But what interests this blog most is not her motivations, so much as the possibility that while making plagiarism much easier than it used to be, the internet might also, to some degree, be self-righting in these matters - thanks, in part, to the sheer number of its users, but also, in the fields of art and design at least, to the continued success and proliferation of design and inspiration blogs.

These sites make it their mission to seek out fresh images, ideas and inventions in any and every field of art or design, with the intention of inspiring other creative people, again, in whatever creative field. Thus anything new and interesting, such as textile design awards, will pretty quickly come to the attention of all manner of people - all of them with a personal and professional interest in originality and integrity.

Perhaps also the same might be true of music now, given the popularity of MP3 blogs? Or even creative writing, with all kinds of journals, magazines and writers' groups existing online?

Doubtless much plagiarism goes unnoticed - and who knows what can be done about this, since by definition it's going unnnoticed. But does that matter? Perhaps the majority of plagiarism that goes unnoticed is just not very noteworthy, not very profitable? And of the succesful plagiarism: while rectifying matters in the short term could be tortuous for the original creator, what useful attention might their work be attracting during the fallout?

That's the optimistic point of view, of course, and there's every chance someone will point me to a horror story in the comments. Nonetheless, maybe in the old maxim that 'in the stealing of what's worthwhile the succesful plagiarist shall always be unmasked' there lies at least a grain of truth?*

Thanks to @laurasnapes for tweeting the original link.

*Actually it might not be an old maxim, I might have just made it up. But since I equally well might have just remembered it from somewhere, and this is a blogpost about plagiarism, let's call it old.

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