When Imitation Stops Being Flattering


A terrific article by a photographer on the subject of imitation, Refs, copies and plagiarism.

LINK to entire article with pictures.

Published on April 30, 2015 by Joel Robison

It seems recently that a lot of things in my photography life have been happening in little clumps. All at once I’ll get messages from people in the same country, or have the same theme of ideas in my head, or even the weather staying the same. But with those great things, sometimes the not so great things come in bunches as well, which is what I’ve been dealt with this last week or so.

A few days a go a friend sent me a message linking me to another artist’s page on Facebook and right away I felt that familiar tingle of anxiety tickle up the back of my neck. You know that feeling when you’re taken by surprise, maybe you’ve seen a shadow that looks a bit frightening at first. My first glance at the pictures on this person’s page had me quickly go from that anxiety-hair-on-end feeling to complete loss for words.

What I was looking at was someone who had essentially built a photography career on copying my photos. From the lighting, to the props, to the locations, to the posing and even down to my signature flatcap hat that I often wear in photos — it was all there.

Hanging in galleries, being proclaimed by magazines as creative and original, published in books. All these photos that actually had me second guessing if they were in fact mine, just run through filters. I was lost, even though it’s not something new to me.

I’m definitely not one to take myself or my images too seriously. I recognize that I put the vast majority of my work online, without watermarks. That’s my choice, my freedom as an artist as well. But that still doesn’t take the sting away from seeing that work disrespected.

Almost every time I post something about this topic there’s always the comment that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And to a degree it is. I certainly don’t get upset when up and coming photographers are inspired by my work and post their interpretations with a link back to my work.

I’ve been inspired by other artists and have interpreted their style in my work, and always make a point to let it be known that inspiration came from another source. This imitation stops being flattering when there’s no attribution to the original creator.

Like I mentioned at the start, things come in groups and the very next day I ended up finding another photographer on Facebook had been very cleanly, removing me out of my own images and putting himself in as a replacement. He’d obviously spent a lot of time making sure these looked like his photos. There were a couple dozen of these images, all with this other person in place of myself.

Again I was totally at a loss. It was like going to watch a movie but all the actors were replaced with other people than you expect, it was just weird.

I posted in a group that I’m a part of that helps photographers with a variety of questions or problems. And the reaction was a unified, “Um…what!?” to both of these examples. At first my reaction is to just shake my head, sigh and let it continue but thanks to the support of these friends, I decided to reach out to both of these strangers to hear their side.

Both of them replied, and both replied with very similar attitudes. The first, denied ever having seen my work or knowing anything about me. After I sent him links of the original photos that he had copied, he replied with a generic “there’s lots of pictures on the Internet that I like” and then stopped replying.

The second person was upset at me that I wasn’t willing to supply him with “artistic backgrounds” for him to share with his friends. An hour after our conversation in which I told him it wasn’t respectful, he posted another one. After another round of explanations, I reported him for copyright violation on Facebook and the images were removed. (thank you Facebook for standing up for creators of content).

Being inspired by another artist is not bad, wanting to create something that you like to see isn’t bad, and even using other people’s work as a motivation for your own isn’t necessarily bad. Many of us have inspiration boards, favorite images we’re inspired by and so on. When that crosses into complete copying and theft, it’s not only disrespectful to the original artist but it also continues an attitude of “it’s on the Internet, so it must be mine to take.”

As a freelance, self-employed photographer, I work hard at not only finding opportunities to continue to support myself but also to produce work that I’m proud of and that I feel engages my audience and helps me grow as an artist. When other people take those images without consent it makes it even harder to focus on the things that I love to do and easier to feel a weight of frustration cloud everything over.

Originality in art is hard enough without looking through Instagram and seeing poorly redone images without any consideration to those that created them, like going to the library and checking out an off-brand version of a bestseller (Larry Motter and the Chalice of Flames anyone?)

Chances are if you’re reading this right now, you’re not one to spend an hour Photoshopping yourself into someone’s photos, but there is a growing attitude among younger artists (no, not all) that almost anything on the Internet is free for use. We as artists need to continue to support each other by fostering creativity not blurring the lines of imitation.

Posted by 8 Bit Dreams @ 5/5/2015 07:00  |    18


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Andrettin (Level 1 Rookie) @ 5/10/2015 07:43

> There have been examples of successful suits over idea theft. Recall Cameron's Terminator or Bay's The Island.

Both those cases were settled out of court, those weren't rulings done by a judge.

JerryPie (Level 11 Godfather) @ 5/9/2015 18:14

good example of what youre talking about..the mobile game called justin beaver.

snv (Level 3 Private Eye) @ 5/9/2015 14:15

Admitting you've used a referene would incur legal repercussions. Work made using a reference is a deriviative work after all. Yet if you won't state that openly, nobody will be able to prove you've used a reference. It is like homosexualism: they may suspect, but won't be able to prove you're gay, unless you step out of the closet.


snv (Level 3 Private Eye) @ 5/9/2015 12:56

Actually, it is very common, especially with small to medium businesses, where desginers either copy outright or recreate. Outside of America, designers don't care to pay at all, even for photobank images - they just clean the watermark out and use it as their own, because nobody can or care to report them.

Basically, with your ceativity, you're simple doing free research for design agencies, who will see a cool high rated work and recreate it. Total ownage.

DatMuffinMan (Level 4 Mercenary) @ 5/9/2015 09:21
 I suppose for some people saying they used a reference diminishes the quality or value of their work. Not saying it should, but this was definitely part of my mentality for some time, and I still kind of hesitate to draw strictly off of one reference picture for the sake of creating something totally new.
If Da Vinci came back today and told everyone he traced the Mona Lisa in photoshop, it would lose a lot of its merits as a great piece of art. 

Zizka (Level 10 Operative) @ 5/9/2015 05:21

  Would you say that copying the composition of a G images photo requires reference links?

I'll answer you with a question: what harm is there to provide the reference in question? 

I have yet to read an argument against posting references. There's no reason to be not to be transparent about it. 

No reason at all. (my opinion).

Zizka (Level 10 Operative) @ 5/9/2015 05:19

 Same for art. I take any of your works, study it and create similar, but with different pixels arrangement.

No offense but I will pray this kind of mentality is limited to you.

snv (Level 3 Private Eye) @ 5/9/2015 01:34


>Rebecca Tushnet analyzes the First Circuit’s decision upholding a lower court ruling that the recreating the factual elements of a photograph is not copyright infringement.

so you can pretty much take anything you like, without paying and/or acknowledging the original author. It is just a matter of taking it lawfully (i.e. recreating).

For example, there is a complete 1-to-1 clone of Windows, called ReactOS. Yet Microsoft can't do anything to stop it, because it was written from scratch. Same for art. I take any of your works, study it and create similar, but with different pixels arrangement.

-DE- (Level 11 General) @ 5/9/2015 01:30

Like I said, there have been plenty of cases of lifting ideas and not actual realizations of those ideas that ended up with damages being adjudged or out-of-court settlements. Whether you like that or not is beside the point. These are facts. Ideas are indeed protected under law, to a certain extent.

Also, I wouldn't accuse judges of accepting bribes if I were you, unless you aren't short on poof. Just because you don't like the law doesn't make it null.

snv (Level 3 Private Eye) @ 5/9/2015 01:06

I'm sure Disney has enough money to buy judge. Because, without a bribe, no judge will defend ownership of an idea. Only patents protect ideas. Although Disney woul unlikely sue, unless your product gets relatively popular, in which case you should have enough money yourself to defend against judge bribery.

-DE- (Level 11 General) @ 5/9/2015 00:28

I'm afraid you can. Try coming up with an anthropomorfic duck that happens to be a billionaire and enjoys taking a dip in a humongous pool of money and see how long it takes for Disney to sue your ass out of this planet.

There have been examples of successful suits over idea theft. Recall Cameron's Terminator or Bay's The Island.

snv (Level 3 Private Eye) @ 5/9/2015 00:14

There is nothing wrong with creating similar works (especially if you're short on time and budget), as long as you make them from scratch and not just photoshop. You can't copyright ideas.

DatMuffinMan (Level 4 Mercenary) @ 5/7/2015 19:52

I would say that a vast majority of art you see was based off of some reference. Would you say that copying the composition of a G images photo requires reference links?

Erico (Level 4 Deputy) @ 5/6/2015 08:39

I have seen it done hundreds of times through the past ~15 years. Specially on publicity agencies attending small clients. It is really horrible to see an art director/creative director coming with someone else´s work as a layout and sometimes asking for a perfect high res ´recreation´.
It is one of the points that have driven me away from working with such field.
While it is highly disturbing, I think artists should move ahead and not waste much time bothering with it, it only brings grieves, a copycat will never be able to take your style and there is a limit on how much such can be commercialized. 

StoneStephenT (Level 8 Guerrilla) @ 5/6/2015 07:30

Tracing/plagiarism is good when you’re practicing and learning and such. Doing it with art you plan to share with people? Big fat no-no.

Using references for your art is okay, whether it's for practice or “production”. Make sure to acknowledge the reference, though. You don’t want to have people accusing you of being a plagiarist, after all.

Zizka (Level 10 Operative) @ 5/6/2015 06:44

Either way, there's no harm in encouraging reference use. Even trace overs are Kosher if a reference is provided IMHO. 

Providing a reference directly as a field to fill is also convenient to investigate which is often a case by case basis. 

I think it's also just plain better than calling out people in public by using inverse image search engines. If it's there to begin with, the author acknowledge its use of reference. Even if the piece is considered plagiarism, the author isn't judged or harshly criticized as the reference was provided right away to begin with, he or she was transparent.

I know this comment won't probably change anything about this. Just wanted to share my opinion (I feel pretty strongly about references) .

jalonso (Level 11 Godfather) @ 5/6/2015 06:37

Zizka, Its too tough to call. The 'line' on this matter is very grey. True plagiarism is the only black and white.

Zizka (Level 10 Operative) @ 5/6/2015 06:05

Which is why having a section in the ''submit'' section called ''reference'' would be a nice addition. 

"It'd be useless. We can mention the reference in the picture description".


People don't realize they need to mention their references. Having it mentioned in the picture requirement would encourage (and make people aware) to mention references. 

Also, it'd be sort of a stance PJ would take about mentioning references. More transparency in this department is not a bad thing no matter how you look at it.

I've lost count the times I'd ask: "Could I see the reference is any" only to realize it was a trace over. 

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