Butch Hartman is well-known for the cartoons he created including shows such as Fairly Odd Parents, Danny Phantom and T.U.F.F. Puppy. However, in February 2018 he announced that he had left Nickelodeon and has since been working as an independent artist.
Part of that life as an independent artist has been taking on commissions where he will draw custom art in his style for a fee, reported to be in the hundreds of dollars.
However, one of those commissioned pieces has now landed him in deep controversy with his fans. On February 20th, Hartman posted this drawing that he had created of Mikasa Ackerman, a character from the manga and TV series Attack on Titan.
However, fans quickly noticed similarities between that drawing and an earlier creation by a Japanese artist known as 028ton.
This, in turn prompted a statement 028ton, who said that he did not give permission to Hartman, or anyone else, to use the image and specifically requested that no one purchase the work.
This led to a strong fan backlash that cause Butch Hartman to become a trending topic on Twitter with some 40,000 tweets about the allegations. Many of those Tweets were people promoting their own commissions while promising that they don’t trace, or pointing out other artists that are deserving of more support.
However, all of this raises a simple question: Is this an actual case of plagiarism?
To answer that we must first dive a bit deeper into the two works.
To Trace or Not to Trace
Looking at the images the similarities are immediately clear. The general composition of the images are the same, the poses are nearly identical and even the lighting on the character is very similar if not the same.
However, when you examine the details, a lot of differences begin to emerge. The two images are done in very different styles, the original being more realistic and Hartman’s being more cartoonish. The details are different between them and that is especially clear when you look at the hair and the lines in the clothes.
These are two images that are almost identical on the broad strokes, but are very different in the details.
While it’s debatable whether that’s enough to make it not a plagiarism, it does separate it from other tracing scandals we’ve discuss on this site.
For example, the Greg Land plagiarism scandal from September 2020 dealt almost entirely with minute details in the drawings, effectively proving that they had to have been traced.
Likewise, the January 2021 scandal over Geshin Impact fan art dealt with tracing so precise that even the lines on the shirt were duplicated.
The case that seems to be the closest would be the Nick Simmons plagiarism scandal from March 2010, where the artwork was clearly similar, but were not wholly traced. However, Simmons had dozens of images and eventually admitted to the copying, albeit saying it was an “homage” to the original creators.
With Hartman’s case, we don’t have dozens of images and, though past allegations of plagiarism have come out in the middle of this, it’s not quite the body of allegations Simmons racked up.
Because of this uncertainty, some have risen to Hartman’s defense, saying that he likely used the image as a reference rather than a source to trace from.
This was highlighted by one Twitter user who attempted to overlay the images on top of each other.
However, this doesn’t get Hartman off the hook. After all, there’s much more to this story than whether the image was copied exactly.
Not a Trace, But Still a Problem
Using the strict definition of tracing, this is not a trace. Hartman very clearly did not copy the original image line for line.
However, despite the heavy use of the word “trace” in the backlash, that’s clearly not the point of the controversy. No matter how Hartman copied or referenced the original image, he clearly went too far.
The fact remains that, immediately after he posted his version, fans recognized the source image and there’s not much doubt that he did use it.
Using reference images are common when creating artwork, but to copy them closely enough that it’s obvious where it came from it simply too much.
In many ways, this is more reminiscent of the Shepherd Fairey lawsuit over the Obama “Hope” Poster. Fairey was accused of taking an Associated Press image and basing the poster on it.
Though the resulting poster looked vastly different than the original image, it was also obvious which photograph was used as the source. The prompted the AP to sue though the case was ultimately settled after Fairey was accused of lying about which image he had used.
Even if Hartman did genuinely use the image as a reference work and nothing else, reference works should not be this immediately obvious. He ultimately created something that is simply too similar, no matter how it was created.
Hartman, especially when creating a commission piece, was obligated to create something that was as original as possible and did not deliver that. Though there would always be some overlap between his work and that of other artists drawing the same character, it shouldn’t have been this clear.
Though only Hartman knows exactly how his image was created (his video of him drawing it only showed him putting down ink on top of the pencil), this is a work that’s simply too much like its original to ignore.
If Hartman were simply a regular fan artist wanting to try that pose in his own style, it likely wouldn’t have become a major deal. His efforts might have even been applauded, especially if he was transparent about his sources.
What makes this sting for many is that Hartman is a well-respected and very prominent artist with over twenty years of history. He also created the piece as a paid commission.
Established artists have a greater responsibility to avoid plagiarism than newcomers. This is not only because they should have the experience and knowledge to know better, but the harm that they can do is much greater.
Hartman failed to do that here and is getting backlash for it. What long-term impacts this will have are unclear, but it seems unlikely that this will be the end of his career.
Ultimately, Hartman will almost certainly recover but hopefully he will learn a lesson from this. Namely, be careful about how you use sources when creating your drawings and use those sources with proper respect.