Yes, but is it (someone else’s) art? – Mark Pedlar

Over the last few years there has been an increase in the tendency for judges of club competitions to criticise images for being “someone else’s art”, plagiarism. I believe that most of these criticisms are unfounded. So, where does plagiarism start and finish?

At least one dictionary says that to plagiarise is – “To steal the words, ideas etc of another and use them as one’s own, literary theft.”

Let’s add to words and ideas the word “images”.

So, if I copy a print of an Ansel Adams landscape and exhibit as my own I am clearly guilty of plagiarism. However, if I take a photograph of a three dimensional object ( eg statue) and create a two dimensional image, I do not believe the image to be plagiarism either in terms of stealing an image or the stealing an idea. If it is plagiarism then photographing the Opera House or St Peter’s Cathedral is also since I made neither of these objects.

I also believe that you can include other people’s images in yours without being accused of plagiarism. Finding a foolproof test of plagiarism is problematic. However, I believe that if your image tells a larger or different story that the art included in your image it is justified.

So let’s look at a few examples.

The left hand image above is a painting by Pisarro (1830-1903). Later, in 1908 a little known Somerset artist Harry Friers painted the right hand water colour. It’s not a copy but Harry could certainly be accused of stealing Pisarro’s ideas – cottage, fence/hedge, peasant etc.

Below are several images of Port Willunga jetty. Are they plagiarism because each of the authors has used the same ideas?

Certainly, I’ve never heard judges label these images as plagiarism.

So, what is the situation when one includes all or part of somebody’s two dimensional artwork in your photograph? I’ve included two images, one of a graffiti artist at work and one of café society in Melbourne. The majority of the graffiti image is of that artist’s work however the photograph tells the larger story of the artist at work and the environment he’s working in. In the café image there is a large area of event posters behind the patrons of the café. I do not believe this is plagiarism. Again a larger story is being told. However, I believe both of these images would be criticised by many judges for being somebody else’s art.

Telling the larger story by including somebody else’s art is not limited to photography. It occurs in paintings too. Controversial Post-Modernist or Daubist painter Driller Jet Armstrong routinely adds his painted modifications to other painters’ work. However, I have to admit he’s not universally appreciated.

He added the yellow boat and wolf in the images below.

Then why do judges criticise the inclusion of other people’s art so often? As a judge as well as an author I know that faced with 80 – 100 images in an evening I will try to justify for each author the score I am about to deliver. Those receiving low scores particularly want to know why their favourite image didn’t score higher. My explanation should be on artistic merit, the strength of the story told and the emotion it evokes in me. I suspect that faced with the task of explaining a low score people sometimes fall back on rules that apparently cannot be disputed – it’s not on the thirds, the horizon is in the middle, it’s someone else’s art.

Take home messages –

  • Theft of someone else’s idea is hard to prove – viz. Willunga Jetty
  • A two dimensional representation of a three dimensional object is not plagiarism. It may not have photographic merit but that’s a different issue.
  • Inclusion of someone else’s two dimensional artwork in your photograph is perfectly permissible if the photo tells a greater story.

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