Plagiarism vs. Independent Creation

Update: The article below has been updated with a statement from Alan MacDonald.

In New Zealand, the prominent Parkin Drawing Prize was won this year by artist Poppy Lekner for her work Forward Slash. The drawing is a sheet of A4 paper covered in thousands of forward slashes from a typewriter.

However, shortly after the victory was announced another New Zealand artist, Alan MacDonald accused her of plagiarism saying that it was nearly identical to another work of the same name by American artist Joel Swanson.

Update: In a statement to Plagiarism Today, MacDonald says that he was not the first to raise the issue and was just one of many to do so. Furthermore, he wanted to clarify that he had no issue with the artist, but with the judges of the contest.

Another person pointed out that both of those works were similar to a 1964 piece entitled Dattilograme Typewriter Poem by artist Maurizio Nannucci.

However, the committee behind the award is standing by Lekner, saying that, “In our view the similarities are coincidental, and the artists are each working in a different context with differing concerns.”

Lekner herself is also denying any plagiarism, saying that she only learned of the other works after she was accused of copying them. She went on to say that her work was the result of ongoing experiments with using the typewriter as a drawing tool and was created the night before entries for the contest closed.

To that end, she’s almost certainly telling the truth. Though it’s theoretically possible that she could have been inspired by one of the earlier works, it’s much more likely that she came up with the idea wholly independently.

Though the idea of covering a piece of paper with forward slashes is interesting from an artistic standpoint, it’s also not an idea so convoluted or complicated that multiple people couldn’t have come up with it separately.

However, this is far from the first time a work independently created has been confused as a plagiarism. There are 7.8 billion humans on this planet and it’s inevitable that we’re going to have overlaps in our ideas.

This creates a major challenge when trying to prove that something is a work of plagiarism.

Sometimes Plagiarism is Just Coincidence

In 2009 photographer Sarah Scurr submitted a photo she took of an iceberg to The Telegraph’s Big Picture competition and was named among the best of the week. However, six years later Chilean reporter Marisol Ortiz Elfeldt claimed that the photo was his and that Scurr had plagiarized him.

However, both Scurr and Elfeldt were able to produce the original images and an investigation showed that the photos, though similar were not identical. What had happened was that Scurr and Elfeldt were on the same boat and snapped remarkably similar images mere seconds apart.

Even more eerie, on March 12, 1951 two separate comics featured new characters named Dennis the Menace. Though there was suspicion one of the creators had plagiarized the other (despite notable differences in the characters), it quickly became clear that neither had even an opportunity to learn what the other had done.

1951 was well before the internet and the two creators were operating an ocean apart. Instead, an agreement was reached, and the United States Dennis remains the affable blonde boy and the UK Dennis remains the brunette bully.

These are just two stories of amazing coincidences being confused, at least briefly, for plagiarism.

Despite stories like these, coincidence and independent creation doesn’t get a great deal of discussion time when it comes to plagiarism. However, it really should as coincidence is one of the most important things to disprove when trying to show that something is a plagiarism.

Overcoming Coincidence

When performing a plagiarism analysis (or just examining whether a work is a plagiarism), one of the biggest challenges is proving that the similarities between the works go beyond coincidence.

It is extremely easy to show that two works are similar. You can highlight matching text, show how much two images are alike, point out common themes and even illustrate overlapping elements in songs.

It is much more difficult to show that the similarities are caused by either malice or extreme negligence. Two works can share a great deal in common, but those similarities may be either coincidence or they may be caused by common elements that don’t indicate plagiarism such as tropes, cliches, common phrases, etc.

Mathematically, there’s no way to completely dismiss coincidence. It’s theoretically possible for a random word generator to create a copy of a Shakespearean play. However, the odds of that are so small that it’s something that can be easily dismissed.

Ultimately, the plagiarism vs. coincidence test comes down to four tests:

  1. Access: It’s impossible to plagiarize a work that you don’t have access to. As such, much as with copyright, access must be weighed when considering if one work is based on another.
  2. Types of Overlaps: Are the overlaps simply ideas or are they more concrete elements, such as words, images or specific notes? Ideas are much more likely to be independently created but the expressions of those ideas are much more likely to be copied.
  3. The Amount That’s Similar: There’s a stark difference between copying just a sentence or two versus copying whole paragraphs. The more substantial the similarities, the less likely they are a coincidence.
  4. Eliminate Other Explanations: Could the similarities be caused by something other than plagiarism? Could there be a trope that the two works share or is the similarity attributable to common language or themes? If the copied elements are not unique to the original work, then the alleged plagiarism can’t be a plagiarism of it.

Any plagiarism analysis that meets these four tests can set comfortably set aside questions of coincidence or independent creation. While, as stated above, it can’t mathematically eliminate it, it makes the odds so low that they are not worth discussing.

Bringing this back to Lekner’s case, the accusations clearly fail the second, third and fourth tests. The only similarity between her works and the earlier ones is the idea of filling a piece of paper with forward slashes.

The execution of that idea is different between the works (with Lekner’s having more variance in the slashes and Swanson’s also featuring the typewriter) and there are other compelling explanations, such as two artists, separated by a different ocean, having the same idea.

(Note: One element that I find interesting is that, though Lekner was accused of copying Swanson, Swanson doesn’t face similar allegations of copying Nannucci.)

In short, even if Lekner did copy the idea, there’s no way to prove it, certainly not to an extent that would warrant revoking the prize. The case is almost certainly one of independent creation, not plagiarism.

Bottom Line

To be clear, it is very much possible to plagiarize an idea. Furthermore, many ideas are so complicated and nuanced that it’s even possible to prove such plagiarism of it. However, the idea of filling a piece of paper with thousands of forward slashes is not one of them. Even the name being the same doesn’t prove it wasn’t an independent creation as the name just describes the character used.

This is not intended as a slight to either artist, but it’s an idea that can easily be independently created and, as these two have shown, executed in vastly different ways with equally different points.

This illustrates why, when investigating plagiarism, it’s important to keep coincidence in mind and to remember, proving plagiarism isn’t about highlighting similarities, it’s about disproving coincidence.

Anyone can point out how two works are similar, it takes much more effort to show that the similarities are plagiarism.

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