South Park Self

mine, my own, my precious

So, riddle me this, witterers. (While we're running with the Gollum theme). What is the difference, in your opinion, between the following, in purely ethical or moral terms? (Please leave legal implications out, I consider them to be a giant red herring in this particular debate).

  1. Creating a new story as a response to an old one, with the new one self-consciously referencing the old one but without using its actual wording. (Postmodernism Red Flag!)
  2. Creating a new story as a response to an old one, using chunks of actual wording from the old one.
  3. Creating a new piece of art by re-drawing and re-interpreting images based on pictures you found on the internet.
  4. Creating a new piece of art by cutting and pasting a bunch of different images you found on the internet.
  5. Creating a new piece of art by radically manipulating an image you found on the internet.
In all of the above cases, how far would you feel impelled to annotate your own new piece of work by attributing the source and artist/writer of the original piece?

The context is the current MicFic project - we are producing a hard copy of our first volume of stories, just for ourselves, no profit or general distribution involved. We bogged down last night in a genuinely divided argument about whether or not you needed to attribute the artwork you used to illustrate your story if you'd manipulated it extensively or if it was a small part of a large collage of images. The whole thing has blindsided me completely, because to me it's perfectly clear-cut. If you use someone else's work, you say so. The interesting thing is that in pretty much everyone else's mind, there seems to be a huge divide between the written word and art. People generally agreed that you shouldn't use someone else's wording without attribution, but were fine with the idea of using clip art or Creative Commons licensed stuff without referencing the source.

Thinking about it in the cold, clear light of day and without the inflaming effect of lots of wine, I think that for me this becomes an issue of recognisability. To bring it into my own area of expertise, postmodern re-interpretations of fairy tale don't step outside the text to explicitly reference the tale/s they're messing with - they tend to use well-known ones and expect you to recognise them, and the stories kinda lose their point if you don't know the original. Postmodern pastiches of well-known artworks likewise don't tend to explicitly say what they're playing with, you're meant to know. (Case in point: all those riffs on Magritte's "Ce n'est pas un pipe", like the MtG card on BoingBoing earlier this year). In these cases, recognition of the original artwork is built into the new artwork on a fundamental level.

But to me, if you're using low-profile images to make your own mash-up art, you kinda owe it to the humble artist to nod to their existence and their contribution to your work. It's still your work. You've transformed the elements you used, but someone still originated them, and to me it feels profoundly wrong not to say so. And, while I think my awareness of this is heightened by being in academia, and in particular by having spent the last six months trying to beat back plagiarism in the faculty, I think the principle holds true any damn where.

But YMMV, and I'd love to know what everyone thinks.
  • Current Mood: contemplative contemplative
I'll delurk only to say that I completely agree. Acknowledge your sources. Why wouldn't you?

This isn't just a moral issue; it's a legal issue. The Creative Commons is not the public domain; I believe that all the standard licences come with the condition that you must credit the source. If you do not, you are breaking the terms of the licence and thus infringing copyright.

There may be some legal wiggle room if an image is so "radically manipulated" that it's difficult to prove that the original work was the source. But if I did the manipulation, I would know. And I would feel really bad if I didn't credit the source -- even if I had used a public domain image and I had no legal obligation. I would not want to take credit for any part of the work that was not mine -- I would certainly consider it to be plagiarism. [1]

I would also feel much worse about doing this to a relatively low-profile artist, especially someone who had been nice enough to licence their work under an open licence.

[1] Obviously YMMV regarding the width and position of the line between inspiration or reference and derivation. I'm conflicted over manipulation of highly unoriginal stock photography of common objects. Yes, they are legally special, unique photographic representations of an apple, cow, Volkswagen Beetle, etc. -- but seriously, how many different ways can you photograph an apple lying on a table, a cow standing in a field or a side view of the same model of car? I think that there should be an originality requirement. Not being able to find public domain photos of common things is frustrating -- it means that if you can't draw realistically you can't easily illustrate your thoughts (assuming you want to redistribute them later). I can't think of a good textual analogy to this, and I don't know if there is one. Or if it's even a valid objection.
BTW, I am very much in favour of copyright reform, and I believe that the current impossibility of legal redistribution of certain classes of derivative works has an immense chilling effect on creativity. I think it sucks that this is such a legal minefield.

I realised as I posted the last comment that copyright law is actually contributing to the problem here. Because obtaining permission to build on existing works is so difficult, and in some cases impossible, some people's first instinct when they do it is to try to obfuscate the source as much as possible and hope that nobody notices. Not because they don't think the creator deserves mention for their contribution, no matter how minor, but because they assume that admitting that they incorporated some part of the work will get them into a world of trouble which is completely disproportionate to their infringement. And they are usually right.
I'd say there is a clear ethical need to attribute, and it costs you nothing.
I think plagiarism is a potential red-herring in this debate. At least plagiarism in the context of academia where it is usually an intention to portray the work of another as your own.

And from the ministry of coincidence, Scott Berkun posted this today: "all ideas are made of other ideas"

For me what has become very clear is that all creation is theft. And arguing about the degree to which this theft is acceptable is to ignore the mechanism of creation itself.

Attribution probably feels more acceptable to you since it feels like good practise for an academic enterprise. What you should really be asking is whether this is an academic enterprise which needs it.

By the way, I won a copy of the book (Myths of Innovation) if you're interested in reading it.
aargh, no, sorry, I completely disagree. How do the artistic instances I give above not constitute "the intention to portray the work of another as your own?" "Academia" is not a separate realm in this instance - particularly since what we're discussing is actually artistic rather than academic production. I think the principle runs very profoundly beneath any kind of creation, academic or artistic.

I don't believe that it in any way diminishes the validity of your creation to acknowledge that the work of others contributed to it. If anything, it enhances it.
I feel that any artwork, writing etc needs a citation if it has had an even vaguely formative role in the new piece. Apart from the moral obligation, I think it's interesting to know how people have arrived at a final piece of work.
This is actually one of my primary impulses - 'oh, cool, lovely piece, you've built it up from all sorts of cool bits, where did they come from?"
I agree with the arguments presented. When the artistic process is:

1. Look at another person’s art;
2. Be inspired to create something;
3. Create something using elements of another person’s art;

then I would absolutely attribute, joyfully and thankfully.

However, for the micfic art, my process was:

1. Design an artwork (I figured it out in my head and did preliminary sketches)
2. Find pics on the internet that allowed me to make the design the way I saw it in my head
3. Manipulate the images to put together my design

I was not inspired by someone else’s art. I specifically did not source anything that was created as an artwork (this is quite hard to express, but I did not use anything that was drawn with originality or creativity – just clipart, holiday snaps, free colouring book templates, that sort of thing)*. None of the images I used were unique – I could (and did) have found dozens of others that would have done the same job. They were not special.

My overwhelming feeling is that by accrediting these images (which by and large are not credited to an author on the sites I found them, so I’d have a web link to an image mill of some sort), I give away the credit for the inspiration rather than the implementation.


*Where I did, for a dandelion photo I found and used, I would give credit – but I found it unaccredited on someone’s blog. So it’s either “source unknown” or I dump the whole thing.
I have huge problems with the idea that attribution falls away because nothing you used was "drawn with originality or creativity". It may not be great art, but someone created it. It seems a bit dismissive to say that it's okay to erase the creator because the work is "not special" - where do you start defining the point at which a creator is worthy of recognition? and who gets to make that call? I can't help feeling as though somewhere a legion of humble graphic designers shakes their fists at you.

I also don't buy that the integrity of your own artwork, and the fact that the concept predates the specific bits of art you've found to implement it, overrides the right of the creator to be identified as the originator of the borrowed works. I would not for an instant deny the individuality, inspiration and value of your vision. Thing is, I bet the original creators felt the same about their own work.
My initial "naturally one must attribute" response changed considerably after reading Jo's comment, above.

I still say yes, attribute where possible, although less so where the source material is readily recognisable. (Legally I'm sure there's no difference, but "morally" if you like, I suppose I assume that certain words/images are so well known, explicit attribution is a bit pointless.)

But - without considering legalities - there is certainly a huge difference in my mind between an artwork (literary or visual) that is, as you first wrote, "in response to" another work, and one that simply uses scraps to create the new work. In fine art terms, collage is a well understood medium and I don't think I've ever seen one exhibited with a list of primary sources alongside.
The collage thing is an interesting one - you're right, sources are not usually listed. By definition, though, surely a collage takes existing scraps of artwork and reproduces them exactly, fragmented and possibly embellished but otherwise untouched? That's not exactly what Jo's doing here.

As usual, the immediacy and fluidity and accessibility of the virtual medium tends to hideously complicate issues that are relatively clear-cut in hard copy.
The situation as described by Jo is a bit of a grey area.

I don't think inflexible rule of "attribute everything" makes sense. Referencing MS Word for a screen cap of clipart or an image mill or advert for a generic photo of a shoe might technically be the right thing to do but for what is essentially a private project it seems absurdly pedantic.

However I don't agree with Jo's view that holiday snaps are fair game. If you know (or can easily discover) the individual creator of an image, you ought to mention them. Though, again, one needs a sense of proportion. More to follow in next comment :)
Some factors to consider. Doubtless incomplete. You could probably turn these into a sort of algorithm but it would still require judgement.

(1) Can you identify the original individual creator of the source image? Yes tends towards attribution.

(2) Is the source image highly generic? Yes tends towards non-attribution.

(3) How well-known is the image? If everyone can be expected to recognise it and its source, there's less point to attribution.

(4) Is anyone who sees your final product likely to think that you originated an element that you in fact sourced elsewhere? Yes tends towards attribution.

(5) Are you manipulating the source image so that it is entirely unrecognisable? Yes tends towards non-attribution.

(6) Is your work going to be available in public, i.e. somewhere people can find it without you specifically showing it to each viewer? Yes tends towards attribution.

This may or may not be a good list. The point is that the considerations are multiple and fuzzy and one should respect the potential complexity of the issue.
I think you're absolutely right about grey areas and fuzziness and stuff, and point taken about pedantry ;>. I think the difficulty I'm having is that my instinct is to go "grey area = attribute like mad to be safe" and others are going "grey area = it's ok not to." I am also very much not participating in the sort of artistic impulse which Jo and others are, which seems to have a very strong drive towards creative ownership. I find it incredibly clear in the case of words, and very difficult to understand why it shouldn't also apply to images.
I'm with the grey area crowd. Realistically, a balanced, flexible, approach is required.

I have a question: did you get *written permission* to use the copyrighted (not PD or CC) images that you used for your MicFic stuff? These are things where the artist has specifically said: you may not use this, at all, it is mine.

Um, I'm confused. Is this addressed to me, are you referring to the pictures I used to illustrate my own micfic?

Assuming this is the case, please see note above re copyright. It's a valid argument in itself, but not one I want to have in this post, which is quite giant and contentious enough as it is. The bit relevant to this argument is, I think, that at no point do I claim to have created a new artwork by using those images. They are illustrations. The attributions basically acknowledge that here is a beautiful piece of art I am borrowing because it is thematically linked to my writing. I am not creating new art from it. I don't need to, because it's complete in itself.
Sorry, me again. I shouldn't, but: I love you all, and I think the microfic booklet is a really good idea, and it would be a pity if it were marred by any lack of gruntle.

Practical suggestion:

Jo, why not add a reference appendix at the end of the booklet with the URLs of the source images? Easy to do, doesn't mar the creative design, and resolves the attribution issue.

Jess, why not mail the copyright holders and ask whether you can use their images in a tiny personal non-profit art project with distribution to exactly four friends? Maybe even send a copy of the story to explain; plus sharing your art with artists is cool. Resolves any question of whether your use of the images damages the owners.
Thank you for helpfulness. We are doing an attribution page of this nature ( which is where this discussion started) and (because of the various arguments presented) I will be updating my section to reference a number of images (but not all, according to my new internal guidelines). I will also clearly state which of the images were based on "sources" to avoid the pretense that I drew them. I feel altogether better about my internal sense of what needs to be accredited and I also see that there are going to be grey areas and it's fine! Thanks for pitching in,