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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Stealing Inspiration

Where’s the line between inspiration, plagiarism and copyright infringement?


Inspiration And Improper Influences
One of the problems that photographers face is that, like any other visual artist, we're all influenced by the works of others that we've seen. While some may view the distinction between being influenced by another's work and re-creating another person's work as being indistinct, for others, the distinction is far more black-and-white. Photo editor Stella Kramer, writing in her blog Stellazine (blog.stellakramer.com), suggested that "[t]here is a difference between [being] 'influenced by' and 'copying of' and we all know it. We are all a sum total of everything that we experience, see and consume. But the whole point of being a creative person is to digest it all and come up with your own individual expression." Or as she put it more succinctly, "Picasso was influenced by Matisse. But you would never confuse the two."

However, Kramer also acknowledged that photographers may be subject to less-than-benevolent influences. Writes Kramer, "I guess one of the dirty little secrets in the industry is that photographers are asked to copy other photographers, they agree to copy other photographers, and photo editors/art directors see nothing wrong with doing this."

In May 2011, Kramer addressed an instance of visual plagiarism. Fast Company magazine hired photographer Matthew Mahon to shoot an advertisement in the signature style of Jason Florio. After her first post described Mahon's images as a rip-off of Florio's style, she received some rather pointed feedback. At least one photographer who contacted Kramer on a condition of anonymity suggested that "it was irresponsible to point a finger at [Mahon] without getting feedback from Fast Company. As it is now, everywhere that that Mahon guy goes, there's now a black cloud over him. That's all that anyone remembers. No matter the truth, 'the Mahon guy ripped off someone else'; that's all that anyone remembers."

Kramer caught up with Fast Company Creative Director Florian Bachleda, who admitted the error. "We screwed up and got careless and sloppy, " said Bachleda. "There was no intent to harm Jason intentionally."

Florio's own comments regarding the situation are particularly insightful. "As photographers we want to be known for our voice, our vision...that is what makes us unique as artists and makes us not just mere widget makers.... Legally as photographers we don't have much to go on as far a[s] recompense. In this instance, although the damage is done, I was able to get some insight and closure by talking directly with the photo and art team at Fast Company. They admitted that they had seen my work in Resource magazine and directed the photographer to copy it."

Fast Company magazine's willingness to take responsibility for its actions may have spared Mahon more serious consequences.

Too Many Shades Of Gray
Where does one draw the line between inspiration and influence, or between plagiarism and outright copying? In a world where a variety of media constantly bombard us with images, and where genuine originality represents a constant challenge to anyone involved in the creative process, the distinction is often too subtle and nuanced to be susceptible to any sort of bright-line test. Like so many things in life, there are simply too many shades of gray to support a black-and-white judgment.

Samuel Lewis is a Board Certified Intellectual Property law specialist and partner at Feldman Gale, P.A., in Miami, Fla., and a professional photographer who has covered sporting events for more than 25 years. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

 

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