What I learned about being plagiarized Part 1 “get a lawyer…or not”


A Young Woman Reading

Artist: Imitator of Johannes Vermeer (ca. 1925–27)

Medium: Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 7 3/4 x 5 3/4 in. (19.7 x 14.6 cm)

Classification: Paintings

Credit Line: The Jules Bache Collection, 1949

Accession Number: 49.7.40


I must confess that I never thought that I would write an extended editorial about plagiarism. In an era of seemingly out of control production coupled with limitless reproduction it seems futile to think that any efforts could counteract plagiarism, get used to it this is the new norm, says my conscience. At one point I came to the conclusion that plagiarism is an endemic part of the 21st century social structure and that very little in concern with visual art and design could be considered original if it is not first validated through a complex system. One, that includes a selection process based on privilege, access, and wealth. The system that rewards those with money in the bank over intellectual property and ethical concerns is one I perhaps anticipated and accepted a long time ago. I did not foresee a more damaging version of plagiarism, one within an  environment and culture I spent a lifetime building with people I admire and trust. My vision of a world of respect and camaraderie for fellow artists that utilize ethical standards, research and hard work as guiding principles, is an attempt to counterpoint another world paced by less noble principles.

Through a lifetime of confirmations that most government entities are driven by the appeasement of influential classes and that laws are written by and for those with privilege, I am in continuos disbelief of how I don’t hear more stories of heartbreak, depression and perhaps suicide within the small sphere of principled artists beleaguered by an unprincipled world, although even one story is too many for me. Because of a generation x skepticism that continues to be spirited despite all that works agains such instincts, I am driven to seek things that go unnoticed, clues on how to subvert if not change a status quo. I am generally unsurprised to be presented with situations in which ethical considerations become secondary or tertiary to other less admirable traits endemic to art making, selling or marketing.

Along with my skepticism I also remain optimistic that all hasn’t completely melted to air but in fact there are and will always be original things that engage our culture and our practices as artists in new ways.

Rather than being pessimistic about aesthetics often discussed without historical lineage or research, I prefer to think that there are still many of us who’s instinct and drive is to push new boundaries. These are times where production far exceeds our physiological ability to catalog and archive what, when and where new work is being made, by an ever-growing pool of artists worldwide. It has become easy to unglue ones work from its origins, and the hard work of people who pioneered new ideas. There isn’t a re-writing of art reference, there is a current and a growing acceptance that ignorance of arts critical, theoretical and historical background is as good as having a firm grasp of it. This may explain the regurgitation of ideas, the practice of copying well worn stylistic movements and the overwhelming number of artists with an inability to discuss in depth the provenance of ones ideas and practices. These may be troublesome trends but they are more a development in an era of shifting social, ethical and moral priorities within global capitalism than plagiarism with an intent to claim ownership of another ideas. It is highly unlikely that a supposed plagiarist has any understanding of “the ideas” within the originators work, at best we expect a very rudimentary comprehension culled from a lazy set of web queries. Plagiarism is not caused by a deficient understanding of ones own practice, naively copying stylistic movements, or  imperceptible modifications of original ideas. Plagiarism is a much harder punch. In a time when anyone can pin up something online for millions to see, serious artists, (by necessity) have to learn to stop measuring themselves up to the gestalt on the web. The challenge now is to measure up to ethical standards; prepare and be ready to discuss work and research; be capable of self examination and a continuous re-examination of your practice and its measure of originality. These “lofty” goals are poured on top of the exhausting effort to maintain an art practice. People with high standards and even higher goals get hurt more when confronted with plagiarism. The result can cause more harm than any thoughts spent on the dominant naive serial production market in media spaces, or the insipid and seemingly pervasive reduction to a commodity of your life efforts. These situations are embedded in our social fabric since the early days of mass production and are harmless in comparison to a directed attempt at taking hard work from you.

I have been attending exhibitions regularly since 1986, I see new and exciting things today but I have become a tougher and more demanding critic of the work that is presented before me, I ask my peers to do the same. The litmus test for what I feel is original is tough to say the least, what I found out was that my measure for what I consider plagiarism is also complex and stringent.

I write this essay because aside from my skepticism and complete acceptance that we, as artists, get taken most of the time, the plagiarist in my case came really close to home. It became impossible to ignore or dismiss as mere coincidence, this other plagiarism deserved an effort to build a strong blueprint on how to counteract it. The right thing to do, I felt, was to share what I learned about the experience. My hope is that this writing can help artists gauge when they have plagiarized or when they are being plagiarized; and what to do.

This essay is written from an artist perspective, I am not a lawyer. What little I did learn about plagiarism and intellectual property law led me to the conclusion that unless you have a lot of time and money on your hands it is unlikely to win an intellectual property lawsuit. I would not want to discourage anyone from seeking legal counseling as it is a part of the learning process and there are some great resources for artists in this area some of which I will share at the end of the series. I felt that the law left me somewhat stranded. You can intimidate a plagiarist with a well written letter from a lawyer but if you do not see yourself going forward with a lawsuit it may be hard to take that strategy to its end result. Other strategies are useful, and they will be covered here, but you have to be objective, strategic and ethical or they may fail and come back to haunt you.

My main impediment for using legal action as a tactic was time. I found lawyers that would take my case on and I may revisit that option in the future (one lesson in all of this is patience). At a critical moment in my debacle I was offered a tenure track teaching position, something I had earned through the aforementioned hard work, ethical behavior and research. I knew I couldn’t focus on my art practice; a move to a new state; and contend with legal issues that may or may not lead to satisfactory results simultaneously. Law is somewhat mysterious it always has been for me, “get a lawyer”, is something I have heard often. It makes sense when you hear the phrase, but if you cannot afford or can’t find one that will trade for work or do pro bono then what can you do? It turns out you may have already done it.

This is the first part of a series of work that examines plagiarism and the often difficult and emotional decision to take action. The series was written as a reaction and response intended to add to the dialog relating to plagiarism and help others navigate and contend with the issue.