Plagiarism, Homage, Infringement and the Collective Creative Consciousness

Is creativity finite, or do good ideas naturally have multiple lives?

A lesson I remember from the sixth grade focused on an essay by a writer accused of plagiarism. We read the piece, then engaged in some pertinent classroom activity, the point of which was to send us forward in our academic careers appropriately recognizant of the serious nature of cheating. The title of the piece survives in my memory as something like The Time-Traveling Reader Over My Shoulder. The thesis offered an exasperated explanation for the striking resemblance of one of his works to one written decades before, one he swore on a stack he hadn’t read, nor even heard of. The cautionary tale left my eleven-year-old imagination, for the short term, delighted by the possibility of time-travel, but the adult creative in me has latched on to the bigger narrative; assuming he’s telling the truth, how did this scribbler lay down prose almost identical to that of another?

This enigma applies to visual art. I’ve been amused when other designers have unveiled illustrations or layouts they’ve been working on, only to discover their work to be freakishly similar to something I’d just pitched, or been tinkering on. It happened a few years ago when a fellow designer chose hexagons and a pallet of yellows for a catalog we were producing as a team, just like a honeycomb motif I’d only a week before used on a collateral piece. I’ve noticed that this synchronicity often follows the release of an Adobe CS version update—often, but not always.

The imagination has standard limitations if you consider the nature of inspiration. Trace back through the history of any single art form and you’re bound to find a leapfrog pattern… probably alongside a fine thread of linear progression. Portland’s folk art scene has a fantastic array of found-object artists, and an oft-featured ‘object’ seems to be the bicycle wheel. During an academic investigation into Constructivism and Dada, I ran across an absurd work by Marcel Duchamp; no, not the urinal, a bicycle wheel on a kitchen stool. Portland’s found-object artists may be achieving an objective opposite Duchamp’s, but some of the original intent is the same—transformation, even nihilism play important roles. One of my favorite bits of visual homage takes a discerning eye to pick out. There’s a brew pub in Portland whose tap handles invoke the domes of a Russian cathedral. How else can one explain the use of the color pink on a beer handle? If you don’t see the connection, look at the rest of HUB‘s identity.

HUB's Tap Handles/The Domes of St. Basil's Cathedral

If the typography didn’t invoke the Constructivist movement of the beginning of the twentieth century, I’d say the similarity of the handles to the domes is coincidental. As it is, I consider the craftsmanship of the handles an homage.

Marcel Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel/Found-Object Sculpture by Richard Cawley

Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel/Found-Object Sculpture by Richard Cawley: Today’s found-object art draws some inspiration from the Dadaist’s ready-mades—everyday objects assembled or combined to form works of art. The message or functionality of the final piece may differ, but something in the motivation, aside from the obvious, connects them across a century.

My critical thought machine overheated when someone told me the universe is probably curved. Mind-blowing though it was, the revelation left me better prepared to discover, or at least consider, that the creative intellect might have the same shape, and copyright law allows for this.

My intention is not to scrutinize any two works side-by-side to some decisive end; not the honeycomb motifs, nor the written pieces from the grade school lesson(even if I had them), nor artworks fashioned from bike parts. We all know what constitutes an exact duplication. We all know what constitutes an exact duplication. And I’m not trying to give plagiarists an out. I’m addressing the idea that all art has been done, the chance that this thing you just sweated out has a doppleganger somewhere, that there’s enough of an unintended lack of originality in a piece to warrant titters, bad press, or even litigation. Those of us who create know the collective consciousness is out there, and we tell ourselves that, should the worst happen, the message or the mode of production are what make our work original. Even so, the creative process benefits from an acquaintance with fair use and copyright laws.


HUB screen-shot: Hopworks Urban Brewery

Bicycle Wheel: Rubin, William S. Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage

St. Basil’s Cathedral: National

Dragonfly sculpture: Fargo Forest Garden Trellises

2 Responses to “Plagiarism, Homage, Infringement and the Collective Creative Consciousness”
  1. Lailah Hamblin says:

    You are such a good writer. Loved it. Those tap handles are awesome, and now I’m thirsty.

    • Thanks, Lailah. Once I started down this road, I found so many re-purposed motifs. And Portland is brimming over with aesthetics borrowed from the Constructivist movement. That’s us, The People’s Republic of Portland!

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