Copy Cat or Inspired Cat

I will always remember my first photography lecturer telling my class;

“ As students you should not be original but copy the work of those that have gone before and learn your craft. When you are professional you can then create original work.”.

I agree with him, as a student to try and emulate images of those that have gone before is a way of learning how to create a certain type of lighting, depth of field, techniques like panning and long exposure as well as editing (analogue and digital). Once mastered over time you own style takes over and your work starts to become original. It can be argued that there is no original thought now since everything has been done before, and similarly in photography there is no original image.

Originality is can be hard, if we see an image we like, subconsciously we are likely to covert elements of the image (composition, toning, focus ect) in the future.  This is part of the collective unconsciousness. 

Original thought is like original sin: both happened before you were born to people you could not have possibly met. – Fran Lebowitz

A US court ruled that Copyright law protects artistic expression not ideas. The ruling was in relation to photo by Donald Harney, of a man who had abducted his daughter and was famously used as wanted poster during the manhunt. Recently Sony made a film about the story and recreated the photo as part of the movie.
Harney claimed infringement due to Sony copying several key elements of the photo, including; film stock, colour and type of coat the girl was wearing as well as the paper the man is clutching to his chest. The court ruled against Harney claiming too much of the image was spontaneous and therefore the core subject of the image is not a protected element, unlike the lighting, the tree, church tower and the blue sky that are part of the composition.

similarphoto harney

Harney’s picture on the left, Sony’s picture on the right. The subject is similar but it is not a protected element in the image.

“Harney’s creation consists primarily of subject matter — ‘facts’ — that he had no role in creating, including the central element of the photo: the daughter riding piggyback on her father’s shoulders… Harney’s difficulty in alleging infringement is that almost none of the protectable aspects of [his photo] are replicated in the [Sony image].” Court Judgement

The image was a copy to make the film a realistic adaptation. What sort of copy, an Inspired copy or a direct copy?

Most people I think would be happy to have someone take inspiration from their work. It would make them feel pleased that they are so talented that someone wants to emulate their work. Imitation is the highest form of flattery after all.

Rodney Smith (photographer) even said the same thing and also added in February;
“…… I am not sure what I feel, and what I’m really not sure about, is why someone would applaud or even hire a vision that is by it’s very nature “second-rate.”

Smith was talking about an image that seems to have been lifted straight out of his portfolio onto the front cover of PDN in March 2013.
The March issue of PDN was covering Cade Martins advertising work that he had done for Tazo Tea and Starbucks. A campaign that Smith said he was approached to do but he can’t remember when.

Smith contacted PDN to make his case pointing them to his blog post. PDN made replied via their blog stating;

“We hadn’t seen Smith’s image. We know a lot of Smith’s black-and-white work, but hadn’t seen—or at least didn’t remember—the work that Martin’s resembles.  So, if we had seen Smith’s images first, would we have asked Martin to explain the lighting techniques he used to create another model-with-teacups image?  Probably not.”

pdncover2 comparison

Martin’s Picture on the left and Smith’s Image on the right.

PDN see a huge amount of images every day including a large number of projects, works and images that have similarities to ones they have seen before. PDN says that comparison is inevitable and they privilege the work that they see first. Companies and agencies are wary of running any campaign that is not tested, this is why there are so many images or products that look similar because, if it works for one why not all. PDN continues saying that if a photographer manages to create images that are fresh and innovative on similar themes then these images will grab their attention.

The similarity in the concept between Smith and Martin’s images is striking; both images show a lady drinking tea surrounded by tea cups. This is the only similarity, as both images have different settings, one in a grand room and the other on a stair case, in Smiths the light comes from the right, in Martin’s image the light is coming from the left. Using the court judgement in the Harney case there is no infringement.
Has it been copied? Possibly but also maybe inspired.

The US supreme court rules that; “copyright assures authors the right to their original expression, but encourages others to build freely upon the ideas and information conveyed by a work.”

What this means is that copying is ok, as long as you adapt the image and build on it with your own ideas. This has been seen time and time again in the history of art, photography and technology. Somebody creates something people love it and want more, another person then takes it to the next level.

Murder 3 Copied

Three Posters Advertising Film and TV, are they copies of each other?

I do feel in both cases that the images have been copied/inspired. In the case of Harney his image was an inspired copy similar to film the image was going to be used in. They could not have used his image as they bared no real resemblance to the actors.
With Smith and Martins images there is such similarity in the model and placing of cups that they are near copies of each other, yet both images are very different in tone and lighting. Yet are so similar they could be mistaken as being part of the same campaign.

99 cent diptychon Andreas Gursky

Strong similarities between images can cause problems for photographers in the digital world we live in. Andreas Gursky is a renowned German architecture and landscape photographer. His images are often taken with large format cameras from a high vantage point. His image “99 cent diptychon” a two part photograph taken 2 years apart in a 99 cent store, is famous for being the most expensive photograph in the world; sold for $3.34 million in 2007.

Lyza Danger is a Flickr user who added a photo to her Flickr account of her local supermarket in 2004. She set the image rights to creative commons. Since being uploaded the picture has received 94,000 views. Her image shares some striking similarities to Gursky’s image, both taken from a high view point of supermarket aisle with colourful produce on the shelf. Although the big difference is in the tone of the image; Gursky’s is much redder, with the tilt shift of the large format correcting the perspective.
The problem comes for when you search for Gursky’s image you will in fact find Lyza Danger’s image attributed to him, which has led to some internet confusion and accusations of theft. Even reverse image searching Gursky’s picture brings up Dangers work.

Lyza Dangers Photo

Danger has done nothing wrong and the problem lies with the laziness of people on the internet not properly sourcing and researching pictures they find. Since the internet is a big web once the ball of misinformation starts it soon becomes fact.

This asks the question of what rules do we follow?
The law allows copying of the subject as long as you tweak the image to create a new work, or do we follow our moral law knowing that copying is not right.
As I mentioned at the beginning my tutor told us we must copy to learn. Do we ever stop learning? Seeing new ideas and melding them with our own artistic view.
I do copy ideas, I am even working on an image which was inspired by another. I don’t feel bad about this, because I am trying to create something new and learning how to create this style of image.

Photo By Sarah DeRemer from the series Hybrid Animals

This week I saw a PetaPixel article on my Facebook feed that made me jump straight to the main image. It was of a penguin with a cats head. I was shocked, mortified; someone had stolen my image and was getting praise for my work on a large photography blog. I quickly found the blog post with my image and relaxed.
The pictures looked similar and actually had the same concept but were different enough for me to unwind. Did I Inspire this photographer? I don’t think so. Was my idea unique? No.


Catpenguin by me, Click to see the post it come from.

Sometimes great minds think alike.

 Originally Posted in April 2013, Updated with information of Andreas Gursky and my own shock this week. Replacement of the featured image and removal of a graphic which was no longer needed.

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18 thoughts on “Copy Cat or Inspired Cat

  1. Interesting thoughts, concerns, ideas. I’m less concerned with “copying” in photography than I am in most other mediums (music, for instance). There are so many photographs in the world that you’re likely to find similar snowflakes from time to time, but they’re more often than not still very much snowflakes.

    I will, however, say that not all business are careful like the one you mentioned. I found two just this week using my photos for their websites without my permission. Not cool.

    • It is not right for people to take your work and use it without reference at least to where it came from.

      What did you do when you found out, have they taken the images down or accredited them to you?

  2. Interesting post. I think part of the learning process is copying. And it applies to other skills in life. I mean when we start to speak or learn a new language we pick up the words from others. Its same with photography. Of course copyright issues are a different question. I like getting ideas and inspiration from others. I perhaps dont think of a certain idea but somebody else did and vica versa. As for being copied – if someone told me they used my idea i’d be rather happy. One of the best comments I had on a photo was “i wish i could take a photo like yours”.

    • I think most people would think it was great that they inspired people as well. with the age of google and so many images online copying an image (not stealing) seems to be a greater crime in the past. With photos being the most digested form of media subconsciously we are inspired by somebody and may never realise.

  3. art students for decades have sat in museums sketching other artists work, it is one thing when we are learning a new technique or skill set, it is another to use someone elses work as your own!

    • Obviously uaing some one elses work as your own is wrong, but what about recreating the image yourself? I went through art school and remember doing research and have sketchbooks which pulled inspiration from multiple sources to create something new but recognizable, maybe this is the step photographers miss.
      Thanks for your comment.

  4. “ As students you should not be original but copy the work of those that have gone before and learn your craft. When you are professional you can then create original work.”. That is a great advice, makes me think differently about my artistic journey, not only in photography, but in other things I do. And a very good post with interesting points.

  5. Wow, this is a trip. First off I love the CatPenguins, too cute. I think a lot of this happens in the music industry as well. People hear a song they like and no doubt if they sit down soon after they may be drawn, even subconsciously, to create something very similar. How much of what you hear today do you swear you heard when you were younger? Madonna vs. Lady Gaga anyone?

    While learning about self-publishing I read advice that encouraged using titles or images that are spin-offs of titles and images that are well-known, popular, famous even. Every time someone comes out with a new product someone else comes out with something like it. Honestly I think it can be infuriating!

    But this is controversial no doubt. There are plenty of people who do this without any moral concern. I don’t think biting someone else’s idea and taking credit for it is right, which plenty of people do. At the very least people can give credit to the original and/or source of inspiration. Isn’t that what we’re taught in school, to rephrase sentences otherwise quote them and provide a source?

    It does make sense from an educational perspective to practice achieving the same results as the masters, or amateurs, who come before us. If only people held on to the ethical side of things while doing so. The similar images is quite intriguing because they certainly are different and yet so similar. I see how they couldn’t be considered plagiaristic.

    Recently I saw the movie “The Giver”, based on a book from the 90s. Within minutes my boyfriend and I agreed that it was like it was a combination of several other movies including “Divergent”. (I didn’t know until it ended that The Giver came first.) Then there’s the matter of Darwin and his theory of Adaptation as the mechanism if you will behind Survival of the Fittest. Apparently Alfred Russel Wallace came up with basically the same idea completely independent of Darwin. In fact I was taught that someone who knew them both got wind that Wallace had the same idea and told Darwin to publish before Wallace did!

    I’m sure examples abound…but I will digress…thanks for the thinking and super cute image, even if it is an inspired copy. 😉

  6. Gosh that was a long message…

    I just quick checked out some more of Sarah DeRemer’s work, SHE’S AWESOME! What a fascinating idea. I definitely see how learning how to do what she does would teach me or anyone so much about post-production editing. I would love to know how to meld, mesh, and mix images so seamlessly! Thanks for putting me on to her work! 🙂

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