Illustration by Creative Unit.
Hang on a second… there is no way we can have a conversation about plagiarism, what it is, who does it, why it’s done and how to know it’s being done, until we establish a basic fact.
Everything, in essence, is plagiarised. Everything.
Put the blade down, push the bucket away, allow me to explain. In the world of storytelling, there are only seven basic stories.
1. The quest: This is where a journey takes place, wise or treacherous in nature, set with a specific goal in mind. Think Lord of the Rings.
2. Voyage and return: Where a quest has been endured, and now the story spins around the contrast between the lessons learnt during the journey and life before or after the journey. Much like in The Devil Wears Prada.
3. The comedy: A light hearted conquering of obstacles, often brought about with malice or just pure bad luck. Pride and Prejudice does a ninja battle with Charlie Chaplin. Yep, they are both comedy.
4. Tragedy: All too familiar, the character’s poor decisions bring downfall, evoking sympathy, pity and fear in the hearts of those watching. Romeo and Juliet.
5. Rebirth: When the character comes out of a metaphorical spell, it could be emotional, magical, spiritual and psychological. Snow White.
6. Overcoming the monster: Could be an external or an inner demon; either way seemingly impossible to defeat. Jaws. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
7. Rags to riches: Not necessarily about money, the story is a tale about a shift from ordinary to extraordinary, or the other way around. Harry Potter and the Billion Dollar Goblet.
There you have it. Every story as we know it, every tale in all its complexity, is a simple combination of any of these basic plots; like CMYK give us an endless variety of beautiful colours.
When I started writing this article, my intent was to start by defining inspiration and plagiarism. The problem with that plan however, was the multitude of definitions that I found everywhere; it made me realise that they both are in a grey, blurry space. As offensive as this may sound to anyone in the business of being original, at its core, plagiarism is not a crime or a sin; it is a simple act of drawing inspiration from another source, and making it unique to whatever it is that you are doing.
By virtue of this definition, our imaginations are legitimised. After all, is not everything an artist, writer, poet or madman ever expressed just an eloquent halwa of whatever their five senses have absorbed over the course of their lives? The soul (if you want to go there) may have felt it, but the articulation, it didn’t just come out of thin air, it had an origin, a birth.
This having been said, and fairly clearly too, it still seems complicated for many people to wrap their head around. In today’s age of online plagiarism checkers and Google’s reverse search image (yep, search by uploading an image), one can’t truly expect to rip something off blatantly and get away with it. You would have to be on very high quality drugs. Or just deluded.
So fashion designers who regularly rip off Eastern European design houses and art students, cell phone manufacturers blatantly copying ads from across the border, TV commercial directors who carefully reconstruct scenes from obscure films, frame by frame. Yes, I’m talking to you. Stop it. Stop insulting yourself, and stop insulting our intelligence.
There is a massive difference when Quentin Tarantino draws inspiration from somewhere and meticulously recreates it in his film as a homage, a tribute to the original, and a stark difference when you do the same, only with less effort and with the audacity to call it your own.
This is where the difference between inspiration and plagiarism lies. One is lazy and deceitful, the other is not. Otherwise, they are both the same.
Making this specific to advertising. Of course, ideas are often similar. Compare Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ with Adidas’ ‘Impossible is Nothing’. In essence, they are both the same. They might as well have come from the same desk. Yet, because someone decided that they would draw inspiration from the same space and to work very, very hard, both brands with almost identical ideas, in completely identical categories, can coexist simultaneously, yet be different.
All hip hop today, arguably originated from the Grandmaster Flash over 30 years ago. Is that theft? No it’s not. It is inspiration, influence, legacy and tribute.
What about Vanilla Ice when he took the riff out of Queen’s Under Pressure? Chori ki? Jee nahi. Inspiration, tribute.
What about a particular telecom’s logo, identical in every aspect to something we shall not name. Inspiration? Nopes. Outright chori, and hairat waali. You could have changed the colour. You could have challenged yourself to tweak it a bit to bring a new meaning. But that would require work, and for the audacious, why bother?
When an ad agency is approached by their client to copy (or from within their own team for that matter) the simple answer is to say no. It’s not a matter of principle, rather it is about having a conscience. It is one of the reasons we were kicked out of heaven, to learn to resist the path of least resistance.
And in a business such as advertising where the basic tenet is to repackage the truth and tell it well, deceit can happen easily. Yet the answer must remain, no. Say no. It’ll feel better.
Since you have been held hostage to a rant of 850 words on what is theft and what is not, I suppose it would be polite to conclude by giving a few tips on how to know when one is plagiarising unwittingly.
Unfortunately, there is no tip. Only an inner voice. And if that inner voice is telling you that you are a piece of poop, if some part of you (however remote) feels crappy, if it feels like chori, then my friend, it is chori. Listen to that voice.
I suppose on another concluding note, I should mention that this article, all its arguments, the whole thing, is plagiarised from things read on the internet, learnt from school and from conversations with men and women far more intelligent than myself.
Truth be told, I don’t feel like poop. Not at all. This is now officially original.
Muzaffar Manghi is General Manager, Adcom Leo Burnett.