Today was our first day of class. In addition to reviewing the syllabus, covering introductions and defining “average” we also covered CCA’s policies regarding academic integrity and reasonable expression. CCA’s Academic Integrity Code provides guidelines for responsible expression. It also addresses plagiarism. Surprisingly, I had to define the term. Also surprisingly, one student asked, “Is it ok to steal from Paula Scher?”
At first I was taken aback by this question, but I realized that what he was really asking was whether someone owns style. Scher’s memorable posters for The Public Theater are a good example of an iconic style that I often see imitated by students. Much of the language of those posters is wholly original — to the point where one no longer has to read the content to be reasonably assured that they come from Scher/Public Theater. The basis of the visual language Scher employs, however, is rooted in her study, observation and interpretation of preceding visual styles. She remixes influences from Constructivism, Dada, Futurism, the Bauhaus, even the lowbrow vernacular typographic style of classic boxing posters — see how seamlessly the latter fits in with three Scher-designed posters:
In each case Scher’s work is informed by historical styles, but she doesn’t seek to recreate them. Rather, she deconstructs the elements that combine to make those works compelling and uses lessons from those observations to create a legitimately new work. This is work I’d classify as “inspired by.”
A perhaps grayer area is that of homage. Again, we can turn to Scher as an example. Her 1985 print ad for Swatch was an obvious (and some say too-direct) nod to an earlier work by Herbert Matter:
While designers generally recognized the historical reference, the average Mademoiselle reader likely didn’t. Whether this qualifies as homage, parody or plagiarism has and will continue to be debated. Many give Scher the benefit of the doubt—she is a high-profile, well-informed designer making a very direct reference to another historically-significant designer’s work. To many though, Matter is a relatively esoteric reference point, which is where the gray area comes in. Unlike artists who ape Andy Warhol’s style or create derivative riffs on the Mona Lisa or American Gothic—which exist as part of our common cultural canon—it’s reasonable to assume that most viewers won’t be knowledgeable of Matter or his work. In fairness, the ad/poster was credited as “Koppel & Scher with Herbert Matter” when it later appeared in design annuals, but to remove any public ambiguity, the prudent choice would have been to acknowledge the source somewhere in the design. (It should also be noted that Scher obtained permission from the Matter estate to use the work as the basis for the ad).
Often lost in the debate over Scher’s work for Swatch is the fact that it was part of a series. The other ads were also parodies of other Matter posters which hung in the Swatch headquarters. This helps resolve the issue of intent, though it doesn’t mitigate the designer’s responsibility to acknowledge their sources.
Without weighing in on the Scher/Matter matter, Milton Glaser recently criticized Shepard Fairey for the many unreferenced references in his artwork, specifically citing the image above which is clearly derivative of another swiss designer, Josef Muller Brockmann. Fairey has long been criticized for basing a large body of his work on that of other artists, almost always without acknowledgement. The current lawsuit being brought against him by the Associated Press alleges that he used a photo by photographer Mannie Garcia as the basis of his iconic HOPE poster for then candidate Barrack Obama.
The details here are a little more nuanced, in that there is obviously a substantial change in style and execution. The central issue remains, however, that Fairey used another artist’s work as the basis of his own. In his early defense he claimed not to know where the image came from, stating that he simply “Googled” an image of Obama and worked from that. (Note, just because you found it on the internet doesn’t mean it’s free or free to use). Later he claimed to know which image it he used and produced sketches and computer records to prove that it was not Garcia’s photo. Recently he admitted to falsifying those records, but maintains he has a right to use the photographer’s work without acknowledgement. The courts will hear the case beginning March 21, 2011. Meanwhile, and somewhat ironically, an entire industry has sprouted up around ripping off Fairey’s poster.
I’ll follow up tomorrow with some examples of some unintentional copying — including one of my own. For the record, though, the answer to the question, “Is it ok to steal from Paula Scher?” is a resounding, “No.”
Other sources for discussion on plagiarism online: