Last week, the Magic: The Gathering community was rocked with a plagiarism scandal that saw a well-known artist for the game be accused of plagiarizing a work of fan art.
The story centered around artist Jason Felix, a freelance artist that has provided over 150 works to various Magic: The Gathering cards. However, when the artwork for his version of the Crux of Fate card was previewed, several people noticed similarities between his rendition of the dragon Nicol Bolas and a version of the same character done by fan artist Kitt Lapeña.
The similarities were unmistakable. When comparing the head and arm of the two, not only were the large strokes the same, but fine details such as the folds in the hand matched up perfectly as well. Lapeña highlighted the similarities in a video she posted on Twitter.
Perhaps most damming of all was a mistake that was present in both versions. Lapeña’s version gave Bolas five fingers instead of four. That error was present in Felix’s version as well.
To make matters even worse for Felix, the other character featured on the card, Ugin, was also similar to art created by Raymond Swanland. That art, however, was not fan art and appeared on another official Magic: The Gathering card.
Turning back to Lapeña, she said that she was not looking for a confrontation but Wizards of the Coast (WotC), the makers of Magic: The Gathering, took notice and, in a statement published to their website, announced that they would be suspending future work with Felix “until we have been able to bring this matter to a successful conclusion.”
Felix, for his part, released a statement on Twitter. There, he admitted to the plagiarism, saying that he was “overworked” but that it wasn’t an excuse. He went on to say that he is compensating the artists involved and advocating for their names to appear on the card instead of their own.
The response to Felix’s apology has been mixed. While some said he is deserving of a second chance and praised his straightforward apology, others said he is merely sad he got caught. Either way, it’s a better response than what most admitted plagiarists get in his shoes.
But, while this brings an end to the immediate story, what’s next for Felix and WotC is unclear. However, what should be next is not a look to the future, but a look through his past…
What Should Be Next
Everything that has happened up to this point has been about as well-handled as possible. WotC quickly responded and suspended Felix pending a resolution of this matter, Felix issued a solid apology that does try to make things right for the victims and it’s all be done with a sense of transparency.
However, there are two lingering questions that WotC needs to answer: First, has this happened before? Second, how do we prevent it from happening again?
The first question is going to require an audit. As we saw with Jonah Lehrer back in 2012, sometimes an initial allegation is merely a warning sign of much deeper problems. This may not be the case with Felix, but right now we have no way of knowing for certain.
For the sake of both Felix and WotC, there needs to be an audit of his earlier work. If the audit shows no additional problems, then Felix will be greatly helped in his efforts to put this behind him. If it does show something, then WotC can take whatever action is appropriate.
This audit should be performed by a transparent third party. An expert on this kind of art is needed, but not one that currently works for WotC or has any connection with Felix.
After that, WotC needs to answer a another question: How will it prevent this from happening in the future?
This case was a warning. It involved a fan artist who wasn’t interested in creating any real confrontation. The legal and reputational risk were minor at worst. However, if a different work had been copied or different artists involved, this story could have gone very different for WotC and fans of the game.
Clearly WotC needs to work on their checks and review process for new artwork. Not only did they fail to catch a pretty clear copy of a piece of well-known fan art, but they failed to notice similarities to an earlier card they published themselves.
That is not acceptable and means that one errant artist could do a great deal of damage to them and their brand. However, that’s damage that they can take steps to prevent, if they are willing to put forward the effort today.
As I said above, this case is a warning. However, it’s a warning that WotC needs to heed. So far, they’ve handled this scandal very well and have taken decisive action that showcases their commitment to fighting plagiarism.
However, imagine how it will look if months or even years down the line something similar happens again. It will show that, while they were happy to take action to deal with the issue at hand, they didn’t make the needed systemic changes to prevent the problem.
While it is generally unfair to hold editors accountable for plagiarism by those that create work for them, there comes a point in which the gatekeepers aren’t doing their part to prevent plagiarism from slipping through. WotC can prevent that from becoming the case.
All they must do is take this case seriously, realize that they were lucky this time around, and put in place processes to prevent it from happening again.