First off this issue, Calvin Reid at Publishers Weekly reports that actor Shia LaBeouf has found himself at the center of a plagiarism controversy after the release of his short film, “HowardCantour.com”. LaBeouf released the film, which he directed, in December, but others began to suspect it was a plagiarism of an earlier graphic novel by author Daniel Clowes’, so much so that some said the graphic novel functioned like a storyboard for the movie in places. Following the allegations, LaBeouf took the film down and tweeted out a series of apologies. However, it was later revealed that those apology tweets were lifted from a response in Yahoo! Answers, which prompted LaBeouf to apologize again, this time using words from Tiger Woods and Kanye West among others. Eventually, Shia took to the skies with his apology, paying a skywriter to write “I am Sorry Daniel Clowes” over the skies of skies of Los Angeles. However, the gesture was likely symbolic as Clowes lives in Oakland. However, the apologies have not been enough to placate the publishers involved. Clowes’ publisher, Fantagraphics, has said that it is “exploring all legal options” and another publisher, Melville House, whose author Benoit Duteurtre may have had his novel “The Little Girls and the Cigarette” plagiarized earlier by LaBeouf in a mini-comic “Slate N Mate”, is also said to be looking at filing a lawsuit. LaBeouf, however, has changed his tone and, in a recent interview with Bleeding Cool News, which in and of itself contained plagiarized passages, argued that the plagiarism was intentional and that “Authorship is censorship”. He goes on to say that nothing is original and that copyright law is fundamentally flawed.
Analysis: Plagiarism is somewhat unusual in that it is both an academic and a creative concept. The scholar and the novelist can both plagiarize and it is important that artists of all types explore the concept of creative plagiarism because, in doing so, one better understands the broader concepts of creativity and originality. There’s even a type of poetry, named Cento, that is comprised of a patchwork of verses and phrases from other sources, without attribution, as part of the art form. However, there is a time and a place for this exploration. LaBeouf’s exploration, which comes right after he was accused of plagiarizing a film, was neither. Any merit that might be found in LaBeouf’s arguments is lost due to his timing. It comes across more as an attempt to save artistic face than a serious attempt to explore a deep and complex issue. To make matters worse, LaBeouf’s arguments are as stale and as recycled as many of his words. They’re the same arguments that have been used over and over again, not just by the authors he copied from, but from countless others, many of whom also stood accused of plagiarism. Whether LaBeouf is genuine with his arguments is irrelevant. In his current position he’s doing nothing to further the discussion and is dragging out a scandal that, in truth, should have been put to bed weeks ago.
Next up this edition, Kate Tracy at Christianity Today reports that Mark Driscoll, a founder and pastor at the Mars Hill Church in Seattle, one of the nation’s largest megachurches, has been accused of plagiarism in two of his books and of trying to silence criticism about him. The story began when Driscoll made an appearance on a radio show hosted by Janet Mefferd. During the interview, Mefferd, tried to talk about what she saw as questionable passages in his book “A Call to Resurgence”. Driscoll became irate at the allegations and eventually hung up on the interview. Mefferd later posted the evidence to her site, along with evidence that Driscoll plagiarized elements in another book “Trial: 8 Witnesses from 1 & 2 Peter”. However, shortly after the evidence went up, it was swiftly taken down and Mefferd apologized to Driscoll on the air. Later that week, a woman came forward online claiming to be a former employee of Mefferd, one who quit over the issues with Driscoll. According to the anonymous woman, Driscoll pressured Mefferd into retracting her allegations and that the evidence against Driscoll was more than clear. This, in turn, gave the scandal mainstream media attention as Driscoll was already a controversial figure for his religious and political views. However, after an investigation, Driscoll’s publishers decided that, while there were inadequately attributed portions “Trial”, that “A Call to Resurgence” met the standards for the industry and would not be amended. Driscoll’s team has already provided the publisher of “Trial” with the needed documentation to cite the work correctly.
Analysis: As I’ve said before, the allegations against Driscoll were not, by themselves, that serious. Given the volume of work he produces in a year, a few passages in three works is worrisome, but not by itself an indication of a trend or a larger problem. Given that Driscoll works with such a large team, mistakes happen and it is more important to learn from them and avoid them in the future. However, a series of factors conspired to turn the ordeal into a major headache for Driscoll. First, his position as a controversial leader made him a lightning rod long before any allegations were filed. Second his handling of the allegations made him appear like he had something to hide. Whether or not Driscoll or anyone from his camp pressured Mefferd into backing away is almost moot. His behavior on the air gave those allegations credibility and his handling of the matter since, which has largely been through stonewalling, also hasn’t helped. Driscoll could have easily nipped the scandal in the bud but, poor handling of the situation gave far more openings for his detractors to attack him, including those both inside and outside the faith.
Also in this edition, the Associated Press is reporting that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has closed its investigation into Moon Dae-sung, a former taekwondo gold medalist who was elected to the IOC in 2008. In 2012, Moon was accused of plagiarizing his doctoral thesis for Kookmin University. In April of that year, the school’s research ethics committee released a statement that the copying in the thesis “Goes beyond what is normally permitted by the academic community.” The ruling caused Moon, then a member of the country’s ruling party, to announce his resignation from politics. The IOC continued to investigate the matter but says that it is now forced to drop the case because the university has not turned over its findings to them, making the investigation impossible. This is despite repeated requests from the IOC for the information. However, the IOC has said that it can reopen the case at any time if further information comes to light. The scandal sits in contrast to former Hungarian President Pal Schmitt, who was reprimanded by the IOC after it was revealed he had plagiarized in his doctoral thesis.
Analysis: The university is, almost certainly, in a difficult position here. Student privacy laws can often make it difficult to share the results of investigations with outside bodies. The IOC, however, can’t conclude its investigation without that information. While it’s not clear how capable the IOC is at conducting its own analysis, even if it can, the information contained the university's report could prove essential. Either way, it’s clear the IOC, even after more than 18 months of investigation, doesn’t feel that it has enough to more forward with the case and is dropping it. In the end, this case highlights the need to balance student privacy with the need for other bodies to be aware of ethical issued with students, including potential employers and other educational institutions.
Next up, François-Xavier Coudert reports for Retraction watch that a French court has ruled against Christine Marchal-Sixou, a dental researcher who was accused of plagiarizing her thesis from a fellow student, Samer Nuwwareh. Marchal-Sixou had been brought up on criminal charges over alleged plagiarism and her husband (and former lab head) Michel Sixou was also charged with complicity in the matter. They were accused of conspiring to plagiarize Nuwwareh’s work, using some 44 pages from Nuwwareh’s thesis in Marchal-Sixou’s. At the trial, there wasn’t much discussion about whether or not copying had taken place, but rather, who had copied whom. The two had worked closely during their time at school and Marchal-Sixou had claimed it was a collaborative effort. Though Sixou was found not guilty for complicity, the judge ruled against Marchal-Sixou and awarded damages far greater than what the prosecution had sought. The court ordered Marchal-Sixou to pay a 5,000 Euro fine and 20,000 Euros in compensation to Nuwwareh. Marchal-Sixou also must retract her thesis, destroy all published copies of it and post the ruling publicly at the university where she is currently an associate professor.
Analysis: As we’ve discussed many times before on this site and in this newsletter, courts are increasingly being asked to address plagiarism issues, both within academia and outside of it. Normally, however, these are matters for civil court, not criminal court. Whether it’s a student asking a court to overturn their school’s decision or one creative suing an alleged plagiarist for copyright infringement, it’s the civil courts, not the criminal courts, hearing the case. But, as with the Polish priest last year, that is increasingly changing. The issue is that plagiarism intersects with copyright law and, in many countries, copyright law can be both a civil and a criminal matter. The issue of whether or not to prosecute a case criminally is, very often, left up to the prosecutors. While it’s easy to celebrate the conviction and stiff punishment handed to a plagiarist that the court found as having acted very egregiously, it’s also disconcerting to realize the increased role that the judges and prosecutors will play in plagiarism matters moving forward, especially in international cases. While copyright laws are designed reasonably well for cases of creative plagiarism, at least certain types of it, their foray into academic plagiarism is relatively new and is fraught with risk. Hopefully, the role of the courts in academic plagiarism will be kept to a minimum and they will only be used when absolutely necessary.
Also this month, Hu Min and Zhao Wen of the Shanghai Daily report that professor Wang Zhenmgmin, a hearing expert at Fudan University, is facing allegations that he plagiarized the design of a new hearing device and a book that he has written. The allegations come from Wang Yucheng, who is a doctor at the hospital and is a former student of Wang Zhenmgmin. Wang Zhenmgmin has received a more than 40 million yuan ($6.6 million) from the Chinese government for an artificial cochlea he designed. However, Wang Yucheng believes that the grant was awarded through dishonestly, claiming that Wang Zhenmgmin not only plagiarized foreign designs in his work, but also misstated the number of theses he had written. Wang Yucheng also accused Wang Zhenmgmin of plagiarizing some 200 photos in a book that he published. According to Wang Yucheng, Wang Zhenmgmin had him and other students scan the photos from foreign books only to have Wang Zhenmgmin not attribute the source in his work. Wang Zhenmgmin has denied the allegations, saying that Wan Yucheng is merely angry with him because he refused to provide him preferential treatment and support. Wang Yucheng had reported his claims on the books to Fudan University back in 2012 and the university found that, while it did not adhere to standard practices, Wang Zhenmgmin had not plagiarized.
Analysis: The allegations made against Wang Zhenmgmin are, without a doubt, very serious. Regardless of the history between the accuser and the accused, allegations of rampant plagiarism and falsification, all to obtain government dollars, warrants a thorough investigation. While design plagiarism claims are often difficult to sort through, other claims such as the photos and other allegations of unethical academic work, should be able to be more easily tested. If the school is dedicated to addressing these issues in a transparent, neutral way. Instead though, the school appears to be taking sides, sending an official to support Wang Zhenmgmin at his press conference and touting the alleged bad blood between the two men. If Wang Zhenmgmin did not plagiarize, then Wang Yucheng should be disciplined for making false claims. If plagiarism did take place, then it is Wang Zhenmgmin who needs to have action taken against him. The efforts by the university to play up a feud between the two feels like an effort to sweep an issue under the rug, regardless of how serious the allegations are. In the end, it may take an effort by the Chinese government, which has invested a significant amount of money into Wang Zhenmgmin’s research, to fully investigate the matter. However, it is unclear if they are both willing and able to do so in this case.
In other news, Phil Gallo and Kevin Rutherford at Billboard reports that Phil Collen and Vivian Campbell, the guitarists from the band Def Leppard, have denied that they are pursuing legal action against the band One Direction over what many saw as a case of musical plagiarism. The debate began when some fans noticed similarities between One Direction’s recent song “Midnight Memories” and Def Leppard’s earlier work “Pour Some Sugar on Me”. However, Def Leppard’s members say that the songs are similar in structure only and that there is no lawsuit impending. While the two songs are noticeably similar, Campbell told Billboard that “The chords are one-four-five, those are the blues. You don’t get more basic than that.”. Still, others noticed a great deal of similarity in both the sound and theme of the two songs, both having an “arena rock” sound with similar choruses and vocal stylings. But despite the similarities, Collen has said that, “The One Direction one (song) is very similar in structure, but it’s all good.”
Analysis: Plagiarism in music is always tricky. It is very easy for two songs to sound very similar while only using chords and structures that are common across an entire genre. While there are definitely cases of music plagiarism and many of them have been brought to court, it’s usually experienced musicians, not the general public, that do the best job sifting through what is actually plagiarism versus what merely sounds similar. Still, this isn’t the first time One Direction has faced allegations of plagiarism as listeners accused the band of plagiarizing their hit “Best Song Ever” from The Who’s song “Baba O’Riley”. However, as with Def Leppard, The Who’s Pete Townsend considered the similarities to be mere structure. The likely reason One Direction faces so many plagiarism allegations has more to do with the group’s popularity as a boy band. This has made them very polarizing with both a rabid fanbase and equally rabid detractors. That makes it likely this will not be the last time we hear One Direction’s name mentioned in an article on plagiarism, even if the allegations, as with these, go nowhere.
Finally today, CBC News reports that animator Claude Robinson has emerged victorious after a 20-year legal battle as the Supreme Court of Canada has upheld a lower court ruling against Cinar, which found the production company had plagiarized and infringed upon Robinson’s work. In the 1980s Robinson created a cartoon show entitled The Adventures of Robinson Curiosity, he then shopped the show, which was based loosely on the popular novel by Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, only to find no takers. However, in 1994, Cinar, one of the companies he pitched to, released a show named Robinson Sucroe, which Robinson considered a plagiarism of his work. Robinson sued and, in 2009 the Quebec Court of Appeal ruled that Cinar had copied his idea and awarded him $5.2 million in damages. The Supreme Court of Canada has now upheld that ruling.
Analysis: The case had a lot going against it for Robinson. Not only was it a copyright battle over an idea, which generally is not considered copyrightable, but it’s an idea based off a work already in the public domain. Often times, cases like these end up turning into discussions about how the standards of plagiarism and copyright infringement don’t always overlap. The plagiarism of an idea may cause moral outrage, but rarely leads to successful copyright cases. However, this case appears to be an exception to that rule and the court, with it’s $5.2 million verdict, is making a statement about the value of the work and the severity of the transgression. All in all, the case is going to become a key ruling in Canada for the intersection between plagiarism and copyright, one that will be looked to for guidance for a long time to come.