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The Ethics of Influence

I have often wondered where the line between being influenced or inspired by someone and stealing from them is drawn.  Obviously copying someone’s work, passing if off as your own, and receiving some sort of credit for it be it momentary, prestige, course credit, or otherwise is wrong and unethical.  But what if the influence is less obvious.  If I write in the style of another author is that plagiarism.  As an aspiring writer I tend to read a great deal and it is natural to try to emulate far better writer’s work, particularly if you are prone to reading most of an author’s collection in a short time.  But when does that influence become plagiarism.  I think of the different movements in art.  I am most familiar with the impressionists so I will use them for this example.  In 1881 Claude Monet painted “Sunflowers”. This painting used many of the traditional impressionistic techniques; large and visible brushstrokes, calm subjects, open composition, attention to lighting, movement, and angle, etc.  In 1888  Vincent Van Gogh, a post impressionist, painted “Sunflowers”.  The paintings, both having a vase of sunflowers as their subject, look somewhat similar.  Of course there are many distinctions in style but it is known that Van Gogh was inspired by the impressionists and he probably saw the earlier painting. Obviously you cannot copy right an image of an object or a title but I wonder how something like that would be viewed in today’s copyright climate?  Whether it would be frowned upon.  If I admire greatly and attempt to write in the style of award winning author, Cormac McCarthy is that plagiarism?  What if I write a story about a man and his son going south in a post apocalyptic United States in that same style, which is a far too brief description of McCarthy’s The Road?  I think that Siva Vaidhyanathan in Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How It Threatens Creativity might advocate that those things are not plagiarism. Vaidhyanathan supports a loose and balanced copyright system.  A system that “does not prevent artists from taking from the ‘commons’, supports the idea that new artists build upon the works of others, and rewards improvisation within a tradition” (p. 125).   To reach this the author suggests that the protection should “expire on definite dates, thus constantly enriching the public domain with new material” (p. 125).   Vaidhyanathan has given me a great deal to think about and I am anxious to continue looking at this controversial debate.

  1. mchrapliwy
    October 25th, 2009 at 13:48 | #1

    I can answer, somewhat, the question on art. I was a fine arts major at the University of Massachusetts long ago when I first attended college. I was an oil painter, and still am, long before I entered college and have sold several of my paintings.

    Some students learn by copying the works of the masters. Such artists can be seen in fine art museums copying famous paintings. It is a learning method. Those paintings can never be sold or passed off as a creation of the copier.

    Another thing that I learned as a result of my education in fine art was that, as long as you are using a photograph or a still life arrangement that you create, you are creating an original work. For example, suppose an artist admires the painting Sunflowers. That artist needs to go take some pictures of sunflowers, perhaps arranging them in a bouquet, and proceed to paint their sunflowers. The photograph serves as proof that the painting is original. That is a condensation of a far more complicated process, but it serves to illustrate the point.

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