August 5th, 2010
What to do about Plagiarism?

Feeling a bit rusty in the writing department these days but I often when I feel conflicted about something I feel that it helps immensely to write about it. Joan Didion says,
“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” This is exactly true for my own process. It helps to clarify your thoughts by putting them out into the world.

I am certainly no stranger to the concept of plagiarism. If I am to be honest I have been on both ends of the spectrum with it. Many times in the past I have myself created things that I feel might fall a little “too close” to the source of inspiration in execution and in concept. There is sometimes a fine line between copying and “making something” your own and particularly in the beginning when I started I did not understand the line. I feel that I can say now that I have learned much better how to take the seed of something and work it into my own style and also to give credit when using the ideas of others. This has become an important focus in my work and my last few books have contained notes to original sources. It has taken me many years to get to this point and while I have made some mistakes in the learning of this lesson, it was a necessary part of my own path.

So how then, do I deal with the issue of people copying my own work? The last few years especially I have become aware of many instances of this. This has coincided with my work growing in popularity (of which I am immensely grateful) and so strangely, in a way, it is a kind of gift. Many of you have written me about it wanting to know my thoughts on the matter, how to deal with it, and if it bothers me. In every question period of every lecture I have ever given, I have been asked about this and here is my usual response.

When I was in art school I had an amazing illustration teacher named Linda Montgomery, whom I am still friends with. What was amazing about Linda was that she taught not only about tools and techniques but also the spiritual side of being an artist, the messy stuff, the human stuff, the stuff you really wanted to know about as a young student. The topic of plagiarism came up in the class discussion one day and the response Linda gave I have never forgotten. She said,

“When you do any kind of creative work there is an energy to it. This energy is made up of everything that is you, your personality, your life experience, the books you have read, the things that you are drawn to as a human being. This energy gives the work life and this is what people respond to when they see it. When someone copies you, their work will not have this same life or energy. It will not have the essence of you and consequently it will have a flatness to it.”

For the most part, when it comes up, I remember this. There are also times when I do not do a great job of it, and it feels extremely “icky” for a time and I try to sit with those feelings and figure out the root of them (as in today). And what often comes up is a feeling of “what if people like that person better than me even though they copied me?”, (especially in the case of published works). I think this comes out of a lack of confidence in my own work, or thoughts of scarcity (there won’t be enough to go around). Then I think about my own process and how I needed to learn those lessons myself, sometimes the hard way. Should I not allow others to make the same mistakes? I must come back to trusting in and believing in my own talent and abilities as that is all that I have control over in the moment. How often we flounder in this area.

I suppose my answer is a bit complicated. Does it challenge me? Yes. and also NO. But I have to do some important work with it. And I have to remind myself that I am utterly and completely unique (as all human being are), and that there will never be anyone who has the same collection of experiences, feelings, and lessons that I have had in my life. Therefore in actual fact it is completely impossible for someone to be able to copy you, except on a surface level, (which is not so interesting in my opinion.) We are an immense and complex ball of really interesting stuff if you stop to think about it. And if you work honestly at it, this incredible stuff will be infused into everything you do. This is the root of work that resonates with others. How incredible is that? This is what I hope to teach my students when I start teaching in a few weeks.

Whew. I feel so much better now. How bout you?

I told you writing helps.

(I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the matter.)

Aug 5 2010
7:32 pm
dana sparkle writes:

do not be discouraged. you inspire & energise with your work and ideas. my 7year old son loves your “explorer” book. i bought it for myself. it helps me to think outside the box. but for him it makes his imagination fly. he loves making fonts & drawing detailed illustrations of his world. i think due to this little book, he knows what he does matters because a grown up has made a book that looks a bit like how he sees the world. we are grateful to you for putting your world view out there.

Aug 5 2010
8:04 pm
judy writes:

As a graphic designer and a fabric artist I have been thinking a lot about the differences between: influenced by, derived from, and copied. And sometimes the lines get very blurry. If you look at the work of Juan Gris, Georges Braque and many of the dadaists like Kurt Schwitters- on the face of it it may appear that one copied another when in fact they influenced each other- and many of the dada artists worked together and collaborated- leading to the similarities. It is an interesting subject and one that I think about when doing my own work- always conscious to not copy but to learn.

Aug 5 2010
9:01 pm
Mati writes:

I was just thinking about this topic today and the world of trend forecasting. How sometimes I make something or have the impulse to draw in a way that feels overly familiar, and am not sure if I’m drawing from the collective consciousness or am copying something unknowingly. Or it’s just that *right*, that I feel like it’s familiar! I think as artists and visual interpreters we soak up all these influences (that are the sum of all that inspires us like Linda speaks on) and yet I feel the urge to succumb to some of these impulses and fight others. Partially for survival in the illustration world I pay attention to color combinations that are current (I guess I’m not talking as much about plagarism as making work that is “trendy”). I guess the bigger question personally is how do we dig deep to make work that is authentic and yet taps into a universal place so that it can communicate some bigger truth? And in this day in age with blogs, etc. so many of us are tuned into the same popular culture and influences. Although, we are still interpret it in our own unique way!!
Thanks Keri for your words. I’m figuring it out here in the comments section;)

Aug 5 2010
10:44 pm
Ria Dixon writes:

I am not trying to be rude… I appreciate your work and find your books AMAZING!… however I think you need an ‘i’ in plagiarism. It’s just the English teacher in me… :) I would love to have a class set of “this is not a book” for students but it is an unrealistic dream… I might suggest creating something that you might let others reproduce… I would gladly pay for that!

Aug 6 2010
5:25 am
Susannah writes:

this topic is in my thoughts more and more these days. I’ve seen whole chunks of my text cut & pasted onto other sites with only a handful of words changed… my photos used without credit (often edited and written on)… design ideas copied…. even ‘about pages’ written in the same way as mine. i think the internet is a wonderful creation, but it not only gives us exposure to so much more work to be inspired by, it also makes it easy to find the copycats.

i struggle with the same worries as you, Keri – what if they take what i do and make it so much better? What if they push me out of the way? but then i calm down and tell myself to trust that what i do has value and only i can do it in *my* way. when working on something new i make a point of not looking at anyone else’s work – no books, minimal blog reading – because i want the voice that comes out of my pen to be wholly mine…. but i know i have the ghost voices of so many writers in my head, too. and so goes :)

Aug 6 2010
8:29 am
Deanne writes:

Your teacher’s words are eloquent, inspiring and true. And yet, I’m guessing that when she said that the internet wasn’t around in quite the form it is today – which takes the whole notion of influence to another level – to be as Susannah points out direct lift and paste. Not sure that energy comes into it so much when it’s a website that’s copied. I’d have to see a side by side comparison. Can you “feel” the fake in digital form? And the old quote comes up “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”:)
I think it’s important to have a spiritual approach, but if it’s a published book you’re referring to, I would refer the matter to your publisher.

Aug 6 2010
12:17 pm
Mandy writes:

I wrote my thoughts out here when I was wrestling with this: It ends with a great quote!

My summed up thoughts:
Do not be afraid, as an artist, to encourage someone else in their creativity. Don’t be so white-knuckled in your grip on your art that you can’t let it go to create the next thing your heart is calling you to.

AND do not fail to live the life you feel called to live just because so-and-so artist is already doing it and has already arrived and there is no place left for you.

Aug 6 2010
8:20 pm
gretchen writes:

authenticity is the most wonderful thing, and increasingly rare, especially now that there is all this social media *sharing* going on. thoughts and ideas are disseminated, copied, recopied, and beamed instantly around the globe. artistic and publishing copyrights are infringed upon every second. it will be sorted out over time. but it seems kind of like a free for all right now. i believe that as long as you know what is real, what is your work, what it is you are trying to do, the rest will follow naturally, eventually, most of the time.

Aug 7 2010
6:17 pm
Jane writes:

Thank you so much for your thoughts on this which I have been mulling over the past few days. I liked what you said about having your own unique voice, and it reminded me of a Margaret Mead quote that I’ve always liked: “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.” To me it’s about trusting in the process of your own unique intention and then letting go of the outcome or what the world does with it. Of course much easier said than done, but there’s something there about valuing your own integrity in the process of doing your work. No one can take that away, and in the final analysis that’s what I find most compelling.

Aug 8 2010
8:47 am
Timothy M Mojonnier writes:

Very well done post on plagiarism. I am a blogger and teacher. Writing is hard work, and that’s one of the reason that my students are sometimes willing to resort to plagiarism as means of reducing the amount of time required to complete a writing assignment. I think those individuals who resort of plagiarism are crossing a certain ethical line. I think that it reflects the general diminution in respect for authority. My last blog post featured the topic of plagiarism, and was motivated by an article that recently appeared in the New York Times. I would be most interested in receiving your comments about my blog post, and exchanging links, given that we are fellow writers.

Timothy M Mojonnier

Aug 9 2010
4:30 pm
kids wall art writes:

Super interesting post. It is a fine line between being influenced by something and drawing too close to the line. As an artist, I agree with you about using what you have learned, and giving credit to the source when we get too close.
Being honest with ourselves and others is always best.
Thanks for your post!

Aug 10 2010
2:51 pm
Michelle Shopped writes:

that teacher’s answer is exactly what i always say about anything created, my most recent example being the “sharing” (or not) of “secret” recipes…

Aug 15 2010
8:27 am
jane writes:

I wish you were my teacher!!

Aug 18 2010
6:16 am
daniel writes:

It’s a beautiful of looking at the issue. All about the uniqueness of you as a person and the quality and passion that you bring in your work. There should be some kind of feeling in your stomach, like being in love, when you create new stuff. And I guess that if someone ‘copies’ you, they won’t experience that. They will feel as flat as the copied work is. But let’s hope most people will get inspired by your work and will use it to create their own unique work and maybe even experience their own ‘stomach feeling’ :)

Aug 19 2010
3:43 am
Caroline writes:

I have had this problem with your work, actually. Where I read through, randomly and want to take your ideas instead of coming up with my own. But I feel that flatness there, and it bothers me. So instead I furiously flip through your books, and then put them aside, close them, I am not allowed to look at them anymore. Then I sit and think and think about how your ideas make me feel, which is so relieved, and so free, and comforted to know that I can break rules and experiment and that I can do these things with my nephews and niece as well and share with them that feeling. But I don’t open your books again. Instead, I make sure I have a notebook handy, and I write lists of things, all the things I want to do, ideas for things to do with the kids, I think about what they like, what would work best with them. And I write it out, and then I leave it closed. And I go and try one thing. Or two. Sometimes they began as words on a page that was printed with your name on the cover. But they become our ideas, because I try to think about how to make them work for our mood and situation right then. It is very hard. But makes me feel not flat, and empty when we achieve it.

Aug 11 2012
10:06 pm
Deb writes:

Thank you so much. This has happened to us. Now, the response does not matter near as much. You are so right, our energy, who we are – is in everything we create.


:) :) :)


Aug 18 2012
4:27 am
Andrea writes:

you are my idol

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