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Submitted on
May 3, 2010


6,346 (3 today)
17 (who?)

Copying vs. Plagiarism vs. Copyright Infringement

Journal Entry: Mon May 3, 2010, 3:02 PM

So, there's a good number of you out there who have heard of the debacle involving the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers.

If you have not somehow bumped into this issue over the weekend it involves The Scholastic Art and Writing Awards which is a judged contest which received well over 150,000 entries this year and which handed out Gold and Silver Medals to 1300+ entrants with a lucky and talented fifteen of the Gold Medalists receiving a $10,000 scholarship.

The Awards themselves aren't what I am addressing but rather the fact that (at least) one entry this year was a direct copy of a work originally created by one of our very own deviantART members.

I'm deliberately not going to name the deviant or the plagiarist because the situation has been resolved with the plagiarist having their award stripped and there is no reason to feed more drama into the issue; if you really want to know I'm certain you can find the information yourself.

What I want to do is to use the overall issue to compare the differences between copying, plagiarism, and copyright infringement.

These three subjects are all tightly intertwined; sometimes they can all be the same thing and sometimes they are not but the reason I want to talk about them briefly is because the Great Campaign Against Art Theft rarely bothers to notice the distinction and for CEA in 2010 we are pushing a bit more education on these subjects out into the community.

Another problem is that the vague term "art theft" gets applied to all three of these situations and as I've pointed out the "art theft" and "stealing" terms just really don't acknowledge the sometimes subtle shades of grey (not to mention not being the right terms to use at all).

Copyright Infringement

Copyright Infringement is what most people are referring to when most people scream "art theft" or "stealing" but of course "stealing" and infringement aren't the same thing.

Copyright is a bundle of five rights which are exclusive to the copyright owner. These rights include the right to reproduce, distribute, create derivative works based upon, preform and display the protected work.

The owner controls all of these functions, subject to certain limitations and exceptions built into the law.

For most people copyright infringement involves the posting of their work or the manipulation (or "blending" or "editing" or "rendering") of their work. In these cases your actual work has been taken and directly used in some fashion.

There are a bunch of different ways which an infringement can occur but there are also exceptions and other situations where infringement might not be occurring so it is really important that you recognize when actual infringement has occurred and that you know how to proceed to remedy the problem(hint: mob action and death threats is not part of the procedure)


Sometimes plagiarism and copyright infringement are the same thing; sometimes they are not.

A plagiarist is a person who poses as the originator or a work which they actually obtained from someone else; they claim to have come up with words they didn't really write, ideas they didn't think up, facts they didn't discover, etc, etc.

When you guys talks about people "stealing your ideas" you are talking about plagiarism.

Now copyright infringement and plagiarism aren't always the same thing. For the purpose of plagiarism the material "stolen" doesn't have to be protected by copyright and the plagiarist cannot be sued for copyright infringement if all that they take are unprotected ideas or facts or things which can be considered to be in the public domain.

If someone were to take and submit one of your original works to deviantART and claim it as their own work, that person would be considered to be a plagiarist as well as a copyright infringer.

If someone were to take and submit your original work but not claim it as their own they would simply be committing copyright infringement.

If that same person were to take and submit the Mona Lisa they would not be committing copyright infringement (because the Mona Lisa is in the public domain) but if they claimed that it was their own painting then they would be considered a plagiarist.


Aside from plagiarism, which is essentially copying while taking credit, we have just plain old copying.

Just like with the comparison between copyright infringement and plagiarism, simple copying is not necessarily either of those and this is where things get really, really confusing.

Artists have been copying from each other since the dawn of time but copying isn't always plagiarism and it also doesn't necessarily equal copyright infringement either.

Copying usually becomes copyright infringement when the copying is "verbatim"; the entire work is copied and copied exactly. There is usually no doubt that infringement has happened when two works are essentially identical in every way.

If there has only been "substantial" copying involved, with the works being obviously similar but not exactly the same it can become harder to have a valid claim of infringement, even more when the works are only superficially similar.

The main problem with copying is that the underlying idea behind your work, lets say a wolf howling at the moon in a dark forest, isn't protected under copyright.

Your exact rendition of the idea is protected and copyrighted to you, but anyone anywhere is free to use that idea in their own work, and many will do so without ever seeing your work and it is entirely possible that the works could simply share superficial similarities by coincidence without any copying having occurred.

Try Googling "wolf howling at the moon" and check the image results to see the sort of superficial similarities I'm talking about.

If you managed to follow all of this you'll hopefully carry away some notion of how nuanced and laced with subtleties these issues are in reality; something which the Black-or-White proclamation of "art theft" completely fails to acknowledge.

It's the biggest reason I'd love to see the community abandon use of that phrase (along with "stealing") and adopt some of the terms I've discussed here. I think once we do we might be able to see a lessening of some of what you could call "batshit insane" reactions people have to situations which don't necessarily call for such a highly dramatic reaction.

We've got millions of artists here and we get ten times that many visitors so it's high time we all started to better understand the issues which affect us as a community; we're all creative people here and we draw our inspiration from other artists even if we don't do it deliberately.

We can all probably name one person we know of who got "popular" here by copying the work of some other little-known artist and not bothering to credit them (plagiarism) and for every one of those people we can probably name five others who have obviously copied and "borrowed" ideas from works they've seen, not to mention the chronic problem of copyright infringement which is practically built into Internet use.

I'd love to sit down and perhaps have a discussion on these issues at some point; questions, answers, and advice from the perspective of what we do here at CEA could probably work out well.

  • Mood: Content
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trevj Featured By Owner Jul 24, 2012  Hobbyist Photographer
Many thanks for a clear consise description of the diffs between goodl old thieving and using others words,but it would be a terrific help if D/A used some of our money on a better watermark,the one provided can and was in fact removed by my brother a computer geek in 3 minutes,thats not so good,we have taken the steps of paying to have a name as our trademark,sad but true,and will be put on all our pics on D/A,should anybody steal our works,we do have recourse thru courts as they will have stolen a trademark,it is so sad to many trolls look at up and coming artists,and there are many talented and gifted ones on D/A,steal their works,there should at least be a page in your website about the importence of protecting your works,and how to do so,withoutit costing a fortune,
i;e making a better watermark from d/a
TheTrueDarkness Featured By Owner Mar 31, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
what if someone took a picture of a set of books using their cell phone camera and submitted it as a deviation but gave credit to the original author? as in something like this --->[link]

can it really be copyright infringement?
hans-sachs Featured By Owner Apr 16, 2012

"If you photograph a painting or other artistic work for the sole purpose of advertising its sale, for example, in an auction or sale catalogue, then you will usually not need prior authorization."
SavageFrog Featured By Owner Jan 3, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
Is there some place here that I can volunteer to help find violations & take them down (aside from simply reporting them)?
tmpfan Featured By Owner Aug 23, 2011
You should and needed to mention Public Domain Works. It is when copyright works time runs out and they are free to be used by anyone.

This is such an important issue and it not to be brought up more when it should be. All the artists should read and learn about this issue so not to confuse or bother other members about it.
kemurikat Featured By Owner Jun 29, 2011  Hobbyist General Artist
I wish Extremist Groups like these concentrated on actual DA art theives instead of picking on various pages that post fan art for FUN:

Aodhan-x Featured By Owner Jul 3, 2011
It doesn't matter if it's for fun.
It's still art theft.

And I don't think you know what is Fan Art:
FAQ #572: What does deviantART consider "Fan Art" to be?
kemurikat Featured By Owner Jul 11, 2011  Hobbyist General Artist
However, it's definitely not art theft if you have written permission from the artwork's creator before you use their artwork. It's just something people have to learn to do or make absolutely sure the art being used is specifically 'stock art.'
Aodhan-x Featured By Owner Jul 11, 2011
Kuriiko Featured By Owner Jun 9, 2011  Hobbyist General Artist
Dear realitysquared,

I'm not sure if you do this sort of thing, but can you tell her that using artwork which you don't have permission is against dA rules. She says that she won't delete them, until it comes from a dA's month.

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