There seems to be an overwhelming number of acts of plagiarism in recent times. A simple Google search on the topic will yield several examples of plagiarized music composition, literary content, speeches, plagiarism in art and photography, and so on. Only weeks ago, there was an uproar over a section of Melania Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention being copied from Michelle Obama’s speech from a few years prior, and the closer-to-home case of President Buhari’s ‘Change Begins With You’ campaign flag off speech ripped from a past speech of United States President, Barrack Obama. Although both cases are obvious examples of literary plagiarism, there is still a lot of controversy with identifying plagiarism in less obvious cases. This debate is not going away anytime soon as the idea of plagiarism itself is problematic with unclear definitions and rules. The line blurs even further when trying to distinguish between, plagiarism, coincidence, inspiration, reference, and study in the arts. This, however, does not justify outright cases of plagiarism and a violation of intellectual property.
A couple of weeks ago, Nigerian writer and indie filmmaker, Akwaeke Emezi, on Twitter called out New York-based filmmaker, Mariona LLoreta for plagiarizing her work. Emezi claims that the concept for the poster image for Lloreta’s new film, AMENZE, was stolen from her 2014 award-winning short film, UDUDEAGU. While it is unclear, at least to me, whether the themes and content of both films are similar, there are obvious similarities between the poster image for AMENZE and a scene from UDUDEAGU and one can see why Emezi has been quite vocal on social media, calling attention to the alleged theft.
The revelation has sparked outrage, with many film enthusiasts calling out Lloreta for plagiarism and culture appropriation. I followed multiple threads as the issue unfolded and tried to form an opinion on whether or not I thought the work had been plagiarized. If I am being completely honest, my answer did not come to me as easily and as straightforward as I would have liked.
As the days and weeks pass, I have given more thought to the issue and have come to the conclusion that there are a good number of people – including artists – who are unaware of or do not properly understand, the role of copyright when it comes to artistic expressions. Many are confused about the differences, if any, between derivative work and copying. After all, in the famous words of Pablo Picasso, “Good artists copy, great artists steal”. There are millions of artwork in the world today that it is almost impossible to find a work that is 100% original without drawing inspiration from one or several other works, styles, and compositions. So if plagiarism in the arts actually does exist, how does one distinguish it from inspiration in cases that are not outright theft? Is there any difference between outright theft, tracing and paraphrasing and do they all belong in the category of plagiarism? Are there ways to avoid art plagiarism in general?
Let’s begin with a definition. Plagiarism is defined “as the wrongful appropriation, stealing and publication of another author’s language, thoughts, ideas or expressions and the representation of them as one’s own original work“. From this definition, it is easy to recognize and call out direct theft which is blatantly stealing the exact concept of an art piece, reproducing it and claiming the same to be your original idea and creation. Furthermore, copying the composition and structure of a work with little or no alteration, with the intent of claiming the by-product as your own is called tracing and is also considered theft. Here, the plagiarist actually goes through the process of reproducing that work but with the intent of keeping the copy as close to the original as possible, usually by drawing on the lines of the original through a superimposed or transparent sheet.
Earlier this year, there was a debate surrounding the similarity of two works, Ugo Ananaba’s Crystal Eye created in 2003, and Joe Amenechi’s Peeping Boy created in 2013. Both works are so identical, the only obvious difference being the use of colour in one. Amenechi’s work was without question a derivative of the former. Although the issue got settled with Amenechi eventually crediting Ananaba’s work as the source for his reproduction, the ethical thing to do would have been to mention the derivative nature of his work, while crediting the source, from the onset without needing to be called out first.
It is easy to identify the outright theft or copying/tracing of an original artwork as plagiarism, however, these are not the only ways in which an artist is vulnerable to plagiarism. Plagiarism goes further to the even more problematic issue of stealing an idea or concept. The lines between similar ideas and theft of an original idea are almost blurry beyond distinction. In the Emezi – Lloreta case referenced above, both images when compared show a black human form with nude shoulders whose face is obscured by hair. In a scene from Emezi’s 2014 film UDUDEAGU, the face is completely hidden by her dreadlocked hair. In Lloreta’s 2016 poster for her film ‘AMENZE’, the face is only partially hidden, leaving exposed nose, lips, and ears.
True, there are differences between both images but it would be almost impossible to deny the similarity of the concept. Can we say that this is simply a case of similar ideas or copying of an original idea? I believe that arguments could be made in support of either party and it is indeed possible, though in my opinion rather unlikely, that Lloreta’s image was created without any reference or derivation from Emezi’s older concept. In which case, we may want to ask Emezi if she had a reference for that particular look or if it was an original concept created by her in Ududeagu.
In the literary world, paraphrasing another’s work – that is taking the original ideas of another’s work and reproducing it with the intent of mimicking the original – without exactly copying word-for-word is still considered stealing. Similarly, paraphrasing art is taking the basic composition of a piece of art and using that as the basis for the creation of your own work. While the plagiarist may not have traced or copied with exactness the original artwork, it can still be considered stealing where a specific combination of elements together forms the overall composition or similar composition of a work that is the intellectual property of the original creator.
Another case of alleged copying vs. creative coincidence is currently being debated on Social Media. A short series with 4 episodes on trauma therapy titled Room 313 written and produced by Wana Udobang, made public in 2015 and a new 2016 short film with similar content and title, Room 315, directed by Niyi Akinmolayan. There is an ongoing debate about the latter being a copy of Udobang’s production. Some have called it a coincidence, others have labeled it outright theft. Like Emezi vs. Lloreta, both film productions call for close examination and if possible, a legal recourse to ascertain what has really occurred.
Of course, referencing another work is not altogether wrong, indeed, derivative works are protected by law, but it is certainly not acceptable to ‘reference’ the placement of essentially every element of the original work or appropriate major elements of said work and credit yourself with concept and design. For a work to be considered derivative – a separate work independent in form from the original with copyright protection attached – it must display some originality of its own. It cannot be a rote, uncreative variation on the earlier, underlying work. It must contain sufficient new expression, over and above that embodied in the earlier work for the latter work to satisfy the copyright law’s requirement of originality.
Even where the rules are unclear in matters of copyright and plagiarism, artists must learn to lean towards a moral compass of ethical practice that regulates the use of another’s creative expression without infringement. You cannot fool your audience. If you have referenced the work, concept or idea or another, say so! Credit your source of inspiration. It does not take away from the authenticity of your own creativity. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being inspired by another (unless you blatantly rip off the original artwork), but to claim the originality of that concept especially in the face of evidence to the contrary is akin to crossing the threshold of already murky waters.
The bottom line is this, most artworks are generally not completely original as all work is to a large extent influenced or inspired by another (or many others). However, much of this unoriginality is acceptably divergent and that is a good thing because art could not exist at all were all forms of reference and inspiration forbidden. Still, while it is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, some approximations are so close that what could otherwise be seen as flattery becomes parasitism.
Top and featured image: Screen shot from Akwaeke Emezi’s film, UDUDEAGU, and film poster for Mariona LLoreta, AMENZE