Homage vs. plagiarism: which one is it?


There is a dramatic scene in the movie The Untouchables (Brian de Palma, 1987) where a baby stroller is filmed in slow motion, rolling out of control down the magnificent stairs of Union Station, in the middle of a shoot out.

The film is set in prohibition-era Chicago and it’s about how law enforcement took down Al Capone’s illegal operations. The Union Station scene is a crucial point in the story as it involves the capture of the mob accountant who would provide evidence that puts Capone in jail.

Any film buff watching the scene will recognize the incredible similarities between the Union Station steps and the famous Odessa Steps sequence in the classic silent movie Battleship Potyomkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925).

Obviously this is not a direct copy: Eisenstein’s steps are outdoors and feature a mass of civilians fleeing armed troops. There is no question of any copyright infringement. Eisenstein may have rights to his exact interpretation of a baby stroller on steps but he does not control all versions of strollers on steps.

But there is a clear copy of an underlying idea. The taking of an idea is not necessarily copyright violation…but it could be plagiarism.

In academia, plagiarism is seen as a form of fraud. If a student hands in a piece of work without correctly attributing all ideas and quotes to the original thinker, she will probably end up being charged with plagiarism. In some cases, the student could even be expelled.

So what happens when Brian de Palma borrows this concept and interprets it into his own movie? This is where it gets complicated; his interpretation of the scene is interpreted as an act of homage to the late, great Eisenstein.

Homage “is a show or demonstration of respect or dedication to someone or something, sometimes by simple declaration but often by some more oblique reference, artistic or poetic. The term is often used in the arts for where one author or artist shows respect to another by allusion or imitation…” (Wikipedia)

So what we have are:
1. Copyright violation
2. Plagiarism
3. Homage

This sounds messy enough without including another problem: who gets to decide what is what? Seeing The Untouchables as homage is not difficult so others should be able to do the same thing. But it’s not that easy…

When a disaffected fan took the movie Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (George Lucas, 1999) and painstakingly edited the movie (most notably removing most of the appearances of the character Jar Jar Binks), it was first seen by director George Lucas as an interesting interpretation. But when this new version, dubbed The Phantom Edit, gained in popularity, it was threatened with copyright infringement. There was no possibility for the claim of homage.

Copyright law pretends to be fair and predictable, but the ability to enforce it depends more on social status and power than the actual law!

For more about this topic see an article I wrote together with Jan Nolin, pubished in ScriptEd: Tolerance is law: Remixing Homage, Parodying Plagiarism


Should we just accept plagiarism?

When my mother attempted to teach us manners as a children she would strictly enforce the no-elbows-on-the-table rule. But when we would question her elbows on the table she would reply that she was old enough to know it was wrong. This is a bit how I feel about the news that Zygmunt Bauman has plagiarized texts. From websites no less!

His accuser, Peter Walsh, a University of Cambridge PhD student, said the websites are at times mentioned in passing as sources, but Professor Bauman does not make clear, through quotation marks or indented text, that he is directly reproducing material.

The Times Higher Education article is interesting in that it demonstrates the sensitivity and care it takes for a PhD student to accuse someone of Bauman’s status. Another academic in the article both says that students would have been failed for doing this but everyone is prepared to give Bauman a chance to explain himself. “He suggested that Professor Bauman’s apparent indifference was the result of “generational differences”.”

The list of venerable established scholars who have been caught plagiarizing is surprisingly long. Recently Jane Goodall blamed “chaotic note-taking” for her plagiarism. The sad thing is that I have heard this excuse from students caught plagiarizing. Being caught seems relatively inevitable in a digital age and the excuses everyone uses are equally sad.

Bauman and Goodall are old enough to know plagiarism is wrong. But does this excuse his plagiarism or make it worse? The question we could ask ourselves is plagiarism as well as the no-elbows-on-the-table rule an anachronistic remnant and we should just ignore these rules since everyone is doing it (not just the kids)?


The quote above is from a Slate article The End of the college Essay. The photo is by Kristina Alexanderson and its called Plagiarism. The fun part is that the photo on Vader’s screen is my photo Reaching for my morning fix. Christina uses the photo to discuss what plagiarism is and how a Creative Commons license can help in situations such as this.

Promiscuous plagiarism

Attitudes towards plagiarism have not always been the same. But this story about a signed letter from Rudyard Kipling admitting promiscuous plagiarism kind of made my day.

“I am afraid that all that code in its outlines has been manufactured to meet ‘the necessities of the case’: though a little of it is bodily taken from (Southern) Esquimaux rules for the division of spoils.

“In fact, it is extremely possible that I have helped myself promiscuously but at present cannot remember from whose stories I have stolen.

“Very sincerely, Rudyard Kipling.”

The choice of words is also very interesting promiscuously and stolen. Kipling seems to realize the importance of his actions but admits them freely in this letter.

Plagiarism and the desire to share

Finnish media reports that Kristina Isola, a designer at Marimekko has apologized for plagiarizing a painting by Maria Primachenko in her print Metsänväki (“Forest Dwellers”). Plagiarism is not that newsworthy but her motivation caught my eye:

“I didn’t think about copyright or that I appropriated someone else’s creative work. “Forest folk” felt so close to me and I wanted to share that forest feeling with as many people as possible,”

The desire to share objects of beauty is probably one of the causes that drives most of Pinterest. This doesn’t diminish the charges of plagiarism or copyright violation but at what point does the desire to share beauty become socially/legally wrong?

Tolerance is law

Enjoying the great feeling of seeing my latest article (together with Jan Nolin) in (digital) print! Please check out Tolerance is law: Remixing Homage, Parodying Plagiarism which has been published today in the open journal Scripted.

Would like to thank the reviewers for pointing out the flaws and helping us improve the article. But I still want more so every and all comment is appreciated.

The abstract is boring but the article is (hopefully) much more interesting. Abstract:

Three centuries have passed since copyright law was developed to stimulate creativity and promote learning. The fundamental principles still apply, despite radical developments in the technology of production and distribution of cultural material. In particular the last decades’ developments and adoption of ICTs have drastically lowered barriers, which previously prevented entry into the production and distribution side of the cultural marketplace, and led to a widening of the base at which cultural production occurs and is disseminated. Additionally, digitalisation has made it economically and technically feasible for users to appropriate and manipulate earlier works as method of production.
The renegotiation of barriers and the increasing number of creators who publish their works has led to an increase in copyright violations and a pressure on copyright legislation. Many of these potential violations are tolerated, in some cases have become common practice, and created social norms. Others have not been so fortunate and the law has been rigidly enforced. This arbitrary application decreases the predictability of law and creates a situation where creation relies on the tolerance of the other copyright holders. This article analyses different cases of reuse that test the boundaries of copyright. Some of these are tolerated, others not. When regulation fails to capture the rich variation of creative reuse, it becomes difficult to predict which works will be tolerated. The analysis suggests that as copyright becomes prohibitive, social norms, power and the values of the copyright holder dominate and not law.

M Klang & J Nolin, “Tolerance is law: Remixing Homage, Parodying Plagiarism”, (2012) 9:1 SCRIPTed 7 http://script-ed.org/?p=476

Why is plagiarism wrong?

Plagiarism is fascinating. One of the reasons it holds my interest is trying to figure out why we get so worked up about it. On a basic level there seems to be a connection between creators and their creations, but why is this connection given so much importance?

In recent years a German Defence Minister and a Hungarian President lost their jobs because of scandals surrounding plagiarized PhDs. Surely their jobs had nothing to do with their ability to complete a PhD without plagiarism. They lost their jobs because of the perceived dishonesty plagiarism entails. But politicians are held up to strange standards of behavior.

When the author Helene Hegemann was accused of plagiarizing sections of her debut novel Axolotl Roadkill she countered with: “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.

There is something interesting with this position – but it would have been stronger if she had put it forward before being found out.

Plagiarism has a strong place within academia but this can be explained by the internal social rules that exist there. Academia is a strange place where science is produced according to an odd set of norms and internal rules that are necessary in that context but are these norms even interesting outside academia?

The academic position on plagiarism is absolute. It is so strong that it is even applied to students in a way that may be harmful to teaching and learning. Here, I do not mean the rare cases where take someone’s work and simply change the name. What I mean here is the case when someone does not adequately use a reference system or when they practice the art of synonyms and re-writing the works of others.

A student work that does not use adequate sources is seen as plagiarism but can consist actually be an example of independent thought. Conversely a work that re-writes and synonymises and references properly is usually not judged as plagiarism – even if it in reality has no independent thought.

The anxiety of the system has led to investments into anti-plagiarism software. But this software does not stop plagiarism. It only teaches students to ensure that they have re-written and referenced enough. The focus is no longer on independent thought but on ensuring deniability and not getting caught.

Ultimately plagiarism and students tends to demand too much of a professionalism of the students and forgets the basic premise that much of learning is derived from copying. Professional academics should still be held to the system of plagiarism today – but should this still apply to students? We need to redefine student plagiarism in some form.

Bad artists copy. Great artists steal

Visited the Picasso exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum and was totally inspired. When I got back to the laptop I remembered the often repeated Picasso quote that: “Bad artists copy. Great artists steal.”

His words were probably uttered as a short cool statement but in a digital environment they are even truer than ever before. Simple copying of other peoples material is just boring and unimpressive. Copying is plagiarism – it’s taking credit for the work someone else has done. At best it’s false marketing.

When great artists steal they take the ideas of others and rework them into something new. The result of the theft is their in front of your eyes but reworked and reinterpreted to a new level of communication. One of the best examples of this was an idea taken from Goya’s work The Shootings of May Third 1808.

The works are similar, obviously so. And yet the differences were intense and total. Nobody could mistake the work of Picasso for that of Goya. Picasso was obviously deeply influenced by his predecessor, but his interpretation of the scene was moving and challenging.

Picasso was challenging the war in Korea in his work Massacre in Korea and maybe did not need Goya. But by building upon the work of Goya he created a work which both becomes a critique of the war and the continuation of an artistic meme. This is why it is fair to say that Bad artists copy. Great artists steal.

Where plagiarism comes from

The idea of property is a social construct and it varies both in places and in history. But is there a point where property is a given? In an interesting study at Yale Kristina Olson and Alex Shaw have been studying at what age children recognise that plagiarism is wrong?

By contrast, three- to four-year-olds did not rate characters who copied as any less likeable or any more bad than characters who came up with their own ideas. In a control condition, children of this age gave negative ratings to characters who stole physical property, thus showing that the the null result for stealing ideas wasn’t because the children didn’t understand the rating scale or weren’t paying attention.

Obviously it is important to try to understand where their values come from. But this is an interesting starting point in the discussion. Read more Olson, K., and Shaw, A. (2010). ‘No fair, copycat!’: what children’s response to plagiarism tells us about their understanding of ideas. Developmental Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2010.00993.x

Originals, copies and confusions

The word originality has never had a peaceful existence. In its early history it coincided with the issue of plagiarism where an author attempts to claim the works of another as his own. The Roman poet Martial (ca 41 – 104) accused one Fidentinus of repeating works he had not created in the Plagiarism cycle:

Fame has it that you, Fidentinus, recite my books to the crowd as if none other than your own.
If you’re willing that they be called mine, I’ll send you the poems for free.
If you want them to be called yours, buy this one, so that they won’t be mine.

It is from this argument that the author creates the term plagiarist which at the time referred to someone who kidnapped slaves. Read an interesting analysis: Martial 1.29: Appearance and Authorship by Peter Anderson.

According to the myth of creativity in the Middle Ages originality was not a valuable trait the author was supposed to repeat the perfect forms created by the ancients rather than attempt to meddle with perfection. In the film The Name of the Rose (1986) the reactionary character known as Venerable Jorge lays out this position

Preservation, I say, and not search, because it is a property of knowledge as a human thing, that it has been defined and completed over the course of the centuries, from the preaching of the prophets to the interpretations of the fathers of the church. There is no progress, no revolution of ages, in the history of knowledge, but at most a continuous and sublime recapitulation.

With the development of the machinery of reproduction the question of original and copy began to become more interesting. The first printed books attempted to emulate the look and feel of hand-written manuscripts “…because in scholarly circles printed were regarded as vulgar and inferior products…” (Bernard Knox introduction to The Iliad p 5). The copy/original discussion was explored by Walter Benjamin in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935). In this essay he noted that that the work of art (the original) had a special aura which the copy doesn’t. From Introducing the Frankfurt School

Benjamin here attempts to mark something specific about the modern age; of the effects of modernity on the work of art in particular. Film and photography point to this movement. Benjamin writes of the loss of the aura through the mechanical reproduction of art itself. The aura for Benjamin represents the originality and authenticity of a work of art that has not been reproduced. A painting as an aura while a photograph does not; the photograph is an image of an image while the painting remains utterly original.

But what happens in the world where the copy becomes art? Where the ready made works of such as Duchamp’s Fountain become works of art through their contact and intentions with the artist? Well they seem to regain their aura. There is even an interesting issue of the copy of the ready mades discussed in Sam Leith’s article in The Guardian A plague of pissoirs is upon us! And there could be thousands more. This re-aura-fication also seems to happen to “everyday” objects with connections to the lives of the rich and famous. Recently Marilyn Monroe’s chest x-ray was sold for $45 000. And this week I read that you could buy J.D. Salinger’s old, uncleaned toilet for $1 000 000 on eBay!

In the midst of all this we are struggling to understand and regulate the copy in digital environment where the copy is the dominant norm. No wonder we are confused. The problem is that we believe in the myth that the physical world has a clear distinction between original and copy – and that this distinction can translate into monetary value. As long as we are confused about the physical world we can never expect to resolve the property of copies in the digital world.