Several years back I wrote a book and at a couple of points in this book I indirectly referenced other works. I did this to pay homage to those authors and artists who had inspired me to write what I was writing; who created styles I loved and believed fit the tone of my own story; whose own writing and works I had once felt like I was living out in real-time. I made these allusions subtle, but obvious to the trained eye, and made sure in the acknowledgements at the end of my book to specifically name the people from whom they came. I wanted readers to pick up on what I was doing, to hopefully grasp the seemingly meta-fiction references that were being made in a non-fiction work and have that add to the surreality of the whole story. At no point did I consider it plagiarism because, quite frankly, it wasn’t. The homages — and that’s really what they were — were never more than a line or two and they were always references rather than outright ideas or thoughts swiped wholesale. They were intended as spiritual color rather than being instrumental drivers of the story.
For as long as there’s been art to copy, artists have been debating where exactly the line is that separates inspiration from larceny. Pablo Picasso supposedly said that good artists borrow and great ones steal, and the problem has always been that unless there’s a quantifiable way to measure one work against another — anything that involves writing typically allows for the easiest comparison — who can tell who’s “great” and who’s merely “good?” Moreover, when does referencing another’s work in your own become out-and-out plagiarism?
Right now, Shia LaBeouf is in a huge pile of shit over a short film he made called HowardCantour.com. The film debuted at Cannes last year but only recently made its way to Vimeo and therefore to everyone on the internet. Once that happened, it took literally a few hours for alert comic book fans — of which the internet is filled to the brim — to notice that the movie looked an awful lot like a short story from Ghost World creator Daniel Clowes called Justin M. Damiano. Now, in interviews LaBeouf had described the “creative process” he went through in making, organically and from scratch, his film, so there couldn’t have been any way that almost every single aspect of its story was swiped from not only another artist but someone as well-known as Daniel Clowes, right? Who in his right mind does something like that and assumes he can get away with it? You’d in fact have to be out of your fucking mind to figure no one will notice that the film you cast Jim Gaffigan as the lead in, screened at Cannes, and then put on the internet for the entire world to see was a blatant, indefensible rip-off of somebody else’s work. What was Shia LaBeouf thinking? We could spend hours digging through that pathology.
But the story doesn’t really end there. Because not only can it easily be argued that LaBeouf has plagiarized material before, but in his apology for plagiarizing Clowes’s work in its entirety for his film — he says he was merely “inspired” by Clowes and got caught up in that familiar and pernicious artistic fugue state, the “creative process” — he apparently cribbed several lines from someone on a Yahoo Answers forum. He plagiarized his apology for plagiarizing. Not even I could come up with meta-satire that wonderfully ouroboric.
I’ve written before about plagiarism in the internet age — the fact that it’s now a double-edged sword. On the one hand it’s almost impossible to get away with artistic theft now because everyone is connected and there are a billion fact-checkers with a billion fact-checking resources to comb through to vet your work. But on the other hand, the proliferation of creative media — the sheer volume of people coming up with ideas and putting them out there into the ether — means that it’s almost impossible now to do something truly, 100% original. What’s more, as Patton Oswalt said when he wrote about a Twitter user who had made a name for himself by blatantly stealing jokes, if you spend your days and nights inundating yourself with media — particularly the work of people you admire and who inspire you — some of it’s going to sink in to a depth where it can eventually trick your mind into believing you came up with it, Inception-style.
I write so much so often that I’ve actually taken to Googling ideas I come up with on occasion to make sure I’m not ripping off anyone else without knowing it. The problem with this goes back to something I just said: these days, especially when it comes to political and cultural opinions or smart-ass snarkery being written, blogged, Tweeted, Facebooked, or podcasted, almost everything has already been or is in the process of being done. The goal then becomes to be the first to get it out there, and all that does is damage creativity because we don’t even have time to think much less let those thoughts ferment for a few minutes so that we can make reasonably intelligent, insightful points, stated well. The so-called creative underclass of the internet has to be a bunch of machines — machines that are capable of lightning-fast thought and creativity and which have the ability to also be aware of every other damn thing being shot out of a cannon into the same space, just by someone else somewhere else on the planet. It’ll make you fucking crazy if you really stop to think about it. If I let the questions that occasionally begin to wrap their tendrils around my head truly grab hold of my psyche — “Why should anybody read me?” “What separates my crap from everyone else’s out there?” — I’d crawl inside a bottle and never come out.
But those are daily internet columns that I maybe spend a few hours banging out and don’t run by anybody but myself. Even if something I write sounds something like what someone else wrote, I can at least comfort myself with the knowledge that it was, in fact, unintentional. It’s unfathomable the thought process that goes into literally lifting an entire work from top to bottom — not simply its spirit but almost every single idea conveyed within it — and taking days and months to essentially recreate that work and pass it off as your own idea. Shia LaBeouf has a nasty reputation for being an arrogant, entitled prick who fancies himself far more of a creative talent than anyone else does. Maybe when you combine that with the Hollywood status behind it and a culture which has reduced intellectual property to ephemera that can be transferred from one person to the next with a simple keystroke, you get some kind of mental vortex that just sucks every bit of better judgment out of you and renders you basically a walking id.
Maybe Shia LaBeouf is the perfect embodiment of where we are at the end of the year 2013. He’s a human sample. A hashtag with five o’clock shadow. Maybe he’s pulling a Warhol and is a living, breathing, satirical commentary on our artificial, artistically bankrupt pop culture.
Or maybe he’s just the talentless but overeager man-child we all figure he is and who he’s constantly trying to prove he isn’t. The endlessly self-satisfied twerp who doesn’t have a truly creative thought in his head but does possess an overabundance of confidence and therefore just figures he can do whatever he wants as long as he’s immersed at all times in the “creative process.”
Regardless, he doesn’t have an excuse for what he did and I’m not sure I’d really want to hear one if he came up with it (beyond the bullshit we’ve gotten so far). Whether the victim of the world’s biggest and longest-lasting brain-fart or not, he stole somebody else’s work and tried to pass it off as his own, without giving proper credit or getting permission in advance. That’s not paying homage. It’s not subtly referencing or acknowledging the spirit of someone else’s work and the way it inspired your own. That’s theft, plain and simple. And even here, at nearly the beginning of 2014, it’s still wrong.