The challenge of plagiarism in the digital

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the challenge of plagiarism in the digital







plagiarism: it’s in the


all writers appropriate language from sources and reshape it as their own, but inexperienced writers don’t do that very well (Rebecca Moore Howard, quoted in Hansen, 2003: 777).

Writing in 2003 of Quentin Tarantino’s fourth film Kill Bill Vol. 1 Jeff Shannon of remarked that it was ‘either brilliantly (and brutally) innovative or one of the most blatant acts of plagiarism ever conceived’. And if it was the latter – so what? Each option is seen as positive in its own way. For the reality is that plagiarism is a fundamental element of modern and (especially) postmodern popular culture.

In March 2002 US rap artist Eminem and his record company were sued by French jazz musician Jacques Loussier for allegedly infringing on the copyright of Loussier’s work Pulsion - in Eminem’s track ‘Kill You’. What was unusual was not that the action was taken – there are numerous such examples of (usually fairly obscure) artists taking on major cultural figures in such ways – but that numerous other artists did not follow suit. Eminem’s music, like that of many of his contemporaries, is essentially and purposively derivative.

Postmodern artists deliberately use techniques of reproduction as a way to ‘challenge the conception of originality underlying traditional conceptions of art’ (Pfohl, 2000: 193). The practice of ‘double-coding’ plays with the concepts of signifier and signified (Barthes, 1973) to evoke a response from an audience already located in a media and message-saturated world. It is almost as if everything and anything that can be said, has been said. The only remaining option is to rejig and manipulate existing images and texts.

Fig 1. Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup

Plagiarism or satire?

Despite the explicit links between such ‘borrowing’ and postmodernism, such an approach is nothing new. Many notable creative people, from Andy Warhol (Fig. 1) to Alfred Hitchcock, have revelled in the magpie-like borrowing of images and symbols. Thus Païni and Cogeval (2000: 18-19) say of Hitchcock that his films:

resonate with numerous iconographic themes descended from Symbolism and Surrealism . . . in turn Hitchcock has become an extraordinary “purveyor of images” to late 20th century art. A great many contemporary visual artists have drawn on the filmmaker’s motifs to create artistic offspring that would doubtless have astounded him

Artists who provided visual inspiration for the filmmaker include Magritte, Munch and Duchamp, while those influenced by him include Cindy Sherman, Eldon Garnet and Willie Doherty. Contemporary artists who express the ‘sample culture’ include the British artist Mark Leckey and the American DJ, composer, collagist and sculptor Christian Marclay (Tate Modern, 2003)

Other art forms have also embodied practices of ‘borrowing’ or plagiarism, such as the incorporation of ‘folk’ tunes in classical music by composers such as Dvorak or O’Riada (Swanson, 2000: 139). In literature and writing the ‘borrowing’ of plots, characters and lines was widespread amongst Shakespeare and his contemporaries, while more recently, the mythical events of the Harry Potter stories have been adapted from stories extant in western folklore, such as that of Cinderella (Wheeler, 2002).

Fashion is a field where inspiration is routinely drawn from the ‘looks’ of the past: perhaps no more so than in the current enthusiasm for ‘retro’ dressing. As the New York Metro on-line magazine notes:

it may come as a shock to customers, but most designers regularly dispatch staff worldwide to scour vintage depots in search of inspiration. (The fashion world is stalled in a staunch postmodernism, where success is measured in the ability to synthesize various influences and make them commercially viable.) These designers buy up bags, belts, or even a coat and then limit their pilfering to the details: the stitching here, perhaps, or a buttonhole there. But they usually stop a hemline short of producing a direct copy. (Larocca, 2002)

The practice is only condemned when the ‘borrowing’ is soon to go too far: as in French fashion designer Nicolas Ghesquiere’s blatant copying in 2002 of a 1973 work by the late Californian designer Kaisik Wong (Fig. 2). This is where, according to I.D. magazine (Chen, 2003: 79) ‘referencing something becomes ripping it off’. Ghesquiere was unperturbed by the expose of his plagiarism: reported as saying: “Yes, I made a mistake. Now my team and I laugh about it” (Garnett, 2003). It has had no negative impact on his career: indeed it has probably made a positive contribution to his profile.

Such is the ubiquity of intertextuality in contemporary culture that one critic (Petersen, 2000: 167) has remarked that:

the traditional distinction between originality – having ideas – and plagiarism – stealing them – privileges notions of authenticity, individual creativity, and, most especially, priority or precedence. Plagiarists are, by definition, second. Yet with the increasingly unchecked circulation of ideas, this all-or-nothing emphasis on having an idea first . . . [has] itself become pointless, except in the field of public relations

Wong 1973

Ghesquiere 2002

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