A Literal Case of Textbook Plagiarism

Earlier this week, the website Anime Senpai reported an unusual case of plagiarism that involves both the Bolivian Ministry of Education and the artwork for at least four popular animes. 

The issue revolves around a series of textbooks published by the Ministry of Education and reportedly distributed to approximately 1.1 million students in the country. 

According to the reports, textbooks distributed to third, fourth, fifth and sixth grade students in the country featured cover artwork that was, at least in part, traced from popular anime works.

For example, the third grade book is similar to the cover image for the anime Your Lie in April, the fourth grade book was similar to the cover of Weathering With You and so on.

The Bolivian Ministry of Education has acknowledged the plagiarism. According to the country’s Minister of Education, the plagiarism was committed by an artist that the government hired for this project.

Though the government said that they are considering legal action and “disciplinary measures” against the artist(s), they stopped short of ordering a recall of the books, saying that the content itself is not problematic.

While that may be true, the story does put a very unfavorable and very unfair blight on those textbooks, something that could easily send the wrong message to the students they are supposed to help teach.

Understanding the Plagiarism 

The plagiarism itself is fairly straightforward. The artist (or artists) that worked on these covers clearly used the anime art as a template for their creations.

To be clear, the plagiarism isn’t exact. The textbooks have the characters in very different outfits and often have their appearances changed in a variety of ways. 

For example, almost all of the characters feature different outfits and also feature changes in hairstyle, hair color and facial expression. 

Image Source: Anime Senpai

However, one only has to look at the posing, structure and layout of the drawings to see the similarities. They all feature the same number of characters standing in largely the same positions and in very similar poses. 

When one looks closer at the images, it’s clear that some elements were traced and others were redrawn. However, there’s not much denying that the anime images were used as sources and that many elements from those images come through in the textbook covers.

If this issue sounds familiar, it’s probably because we just looked at a similar kind of tracing in the work of Roy Lichtenstein. Much of his most famous art was literally traced and modified from panels in comic books, which were seen as “low art” at the time. 

However, rather than tracing from unknown artists as Lichtenstein did, the artist of these images traced from the cover art of some of the most popular animes. Given the global reach of anime as an art form, this was a plagiarism that was almost guaranteed to be found out.

Now that it has, the Ministry of Education is in a difficult position. They have to figure out what, if anything, they should do about the issue.

What The Ministry of Education Should Do

The Ministry of Education has to make two decisions:

  1. What Should They Do with the Artist? How to respond to the artist(s) that created the images.
  2. Whether to Recall the Books? Whether this issue justifies or necessitates the recall of all printed and distributed books.

The first question depends heavily on the contract that the ministry signed with the artist. If this plagiarism amounts to a breach of that agreement, then they absolutely should pursue whatever remedies they can. 

The recall question is the more complicated one. 

Though the ministry has said it won’t recall the books, it’s easy to see why many would like to see that happen. For one, having a plagiarized work on the cover of an academic textbook sends a very strong message to the students that will be using them.

To be clear, students in this age range can and do understand the nuances around plagiarism. A 2010 study at Yale found that, by ages 5 or 6, most students were able to understand what plagiarism is and that it’s wrong

This means that, by grade three, students already have an innate understanding of plagiarism and that it is wrong. So, when they are handed these textbooks, it may send a message to them that teachers and parents don’t want them to get.

Another reason to recall the books is more practical: Copyright infringement.

The images are all pretty clearly derivative works based on the sources. If the owners of those animes wanted to file a lawsuit against the Ministry of Education, they likely could and would have a decent chance at success (depending on the laws specific to Bolivia).

However, a lawsuit isn’t very likely. Anime distributors, in general, are focused on piracy and not whether promotional images were used as the basis for a textbook cover. Such a lawsuit would be a big, ugly and expensive affair over an issue that doesn’t really hurt them that much.

More to the point, recalling the books may not be practical. With 1.1 million copies already distributed, the cost and effort required to perform such a recall may simply not be practical. 

In the end, this may actually be the best solution. Acknowledge the plagiarism, target the artist to the maximum extent possible, cite the sources wherever you can, but let the books live out their useful life. 

It doesn’t feel like a very good solution. But the nature of the situation doesn’t afford many realistic alternatives.

Bottom Line

One thing that can be safely said is that there is not much that the ministry could have done to prevent this.

This kind of copying is very difficult to detect. Though there are tools that can spot cropped, edited and manipulated copies of images, this wasn’t a case of an exact copy. This required humans to spot the similarities and, specifically, humans who were familiar with the source material.

Once again, this was similar to the Lichtenstein case, where it took a lone archivist decades to track down the sources for Lichtenstein’s work. Despite working for most of his life and being an expert in the field, he still believes he’s only found 95% of the sources. 

Ultimately, this puts the ministry in a tough position and, though they’ve acknowledged the plagiarism and may well punish the artist, it could still send the wrong message to students.

That said, this could also be an opportunity. Classes could use this to discuss plagiarism in a non-traditional way. It could be used as an example and a conversation starter to discuss both what plagiarism is and why it is morally wrong.

That, in turn, might be the best outcome. Even if you can’t repair or undo the misdeed, you may still be able to turn it into a positive.

Header Image Source: Anime Senpai

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