When does being influenced turn into plagiarism?

Imagine my surprise when surfing for some images, I came across a painting of a toucan which looking spookily like one I had painted a while back. A few clicks later I was on a website on the other side of the world looking at copies of several of my paintings. My voice went up an octave as I squeaked in indignation.

Now I don’t mean similar, I mean exactly the same. Here, judge for yourself (and I have taken out the artist’s signature to save blushes) – my toucan on the right, after spending a day at London zoo sketching in the cold:


And another, this time my stag on the left:


In some ways my ego is a little flattered ‘gosh, they must like my work’ and in some ways I am entirely outraged ‘they didn’t even say please’.

Now, I know colour, style and subject cannot be protected in anyway and neither should it. Who can ‘own’ working in loose watercolour? Who can own painting animals? It would be ridiculous to want that. Most of us learn to draw and paint by copying. We all stand on the shoulders of those who have come before. I often do a search before starting a painting to both get ideas (ooh, I really like the way they’ve done xxxx) and also to reject ideas (if everyone else has painted something in one way, why would I want to?).

The question is when does being influenced by someone’s composition and palette cross the line into plagiarism and passing off? And what can you do about it?

Unless you have very deep pockets or a partner who is a lawyer, then frankly there is not a lot you can do to make the offender desist. In this case I have sent a polite, friendly but firm email saying that I have spotted the copying, credit should be given and kindly don’t do it again. I suspect the artist did not think it would be noticed being on a different continent and possibly was ignorant of the law. But when a picture is on the internet, a film is on YouTube or an image on twitter, the chances of it being noticed seem if not high, then certainly a possibility.

So, I am awaiting a reply. I think it will be a total mea culpa, with the offer to remove the pictures and film or to put in a full credit ‘from an original painting by Liz Chaderton’. But we shall see.

Meanwhile I found an excellent blog post and discussion about the same subject: http://mariabrophy.com/philosophy/when-is-it-okay-to-copy-and-sell-another%E2%80%99s-work-plagiarism-and-the-golden-rule.html

Tempted as I was to copy it and pass it off as my own original thinking, I decided upon reflection that would be a little too ironic.


About lizintheshed

Watercolour artist and copywriter, living and working in the Thames Valley.
This entry was posted in Art, Techniques, Watercolour and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to When does being influenced turn into plagiarism?

  1. @shane says:

    A very interesting post. Your art looks great but it looks like others are trying to follow your footsteps. If those copied art pieces are for art class then ill give them a chance. Awesome post!

    • lizintheshed says:

      I really like to share my art and run classes, but always say ‘try to paint like you, not like me’. If the copies are on sale or display, you need to ask. If it is in a class, then copy all you like – it’s how we all learn. It’s really made me think about whether I am influenced or whether I copy and just where the line is. Sometimes life is complicated!

  2. debiriley says:

    in my opinion, if one is so direly needing to copy someone else’s creations & not pursue their own inner voice, then, those that should be ‘copied’ would be the deceased Masters i.e. Renoir, Degas, Turner, Corot, Edward Seago, Picasso……. etc. It is frustrating to find that someone has taken something without permission. Plus, when they copy, they don’t actually learn artistic problem solving skills.

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