What are we talking about when we talk about cartoon plagiarism

Now concentrate, and picture yourself as an editorial cartoonist. It’s your average day. You follow the news, pick a topic for your next cartoon, do some research, get drawing, proudly publish your work. And then another cartoonists writes a comment under your post saying “I already drew this, look at this link.”

How do you feel? Is he right!? Maybe he is! Did you do your fair amount of research to be sure your idea and the realization of it are in no way similar to anyone else’s? You spent so much time thinking and drawing and, all of a sudden, in front of everyone, another cartoonist says something that sounds pretty much like a “yeah well, this sit was taken, dude” or even worse, “you kind of copied my work.”

You must feel bad, I think. I feel bad about it, and it happened more than once. But was this deserved?

Let’s talk about plagiarism.

From the University of Oxford: “Plagiarism is presenting someone else’s work or ideas as your own, with or without their consent, by incorporating it into your work without full acknowledgment.”

Pretty straightforward.

So, we can exclude that part that says “presenting some else’s work” as your own. That would amount to taking a screenshot of a cartoon made by another cartoonist, cutting away their signature, and publishing it claiming the authorship of it. That is crazy, and basically never happens. Cartoons get regularly stolen, that for sure, but not by other cartoonists.

But what about presenting “ideas as your own”? This is tricky. Say I take Edvard Munch’s The Scream and I use it, in a different fashion but in a totally similar way, for something like the coronavirus face masks scare. Like this.

Would this be plagiarism? I don’t believe so. This would fall more on the line of referencing – in a postmodern way – to a work of art or widely known image for the purpose of delivering a message. References happen every day, they are part of our culture – think about the Simpsons and their use of pop culture, movies, books, songs, etc.

Drawing the same thing

And yet, the concept of reference implies a “paternity.” It implies that, when I re-draw The Scream, I admit I am working on a remake of the original work. That’s also why no one gets upset about it. Because the source is known!

But what if I am not doing that? What if it is not my intention to refer to anything or anyone in particular, and I am simply drawing something that, in a way or another, was already drawn by another cartoonist? It just happened to have been already kind of done.

Let me give you an example. I recently drew a cartoon about the Israeli occupation of Palestine – you can see it below. I posted it on my social media and a fellow cartoonist commented: “Unfortunately there are more flags with tanks. See my Myanmar flag.”

As I said at the beginning, a cartoonist tries to avoid working on ideas that are already taken. One does some research, maybe trying to google “Israeli flag tank cartoon” or skimming through archives like the one on the Cartoon Movement. It takes time, and it’s no rocket science.

To be frank, a cartoonist cannot tell another cartoonist “hey, tank and flag are already taken.” Otherwise a singer could go on like “I’ve got dips on the words love, heart, sky,” for example.

Plus, here we’re talking about really common keywords: war, Israel, Palestine, tank, occupation. The possible permutations of images revolving around such ideas are, well, not infinite. A subject needs to be understandable for the public and not impossibly complicated to draw. It’s a fine balance, and cartoons are heavily based on stereotypes. Make it too “out there”, or too difficult, and nobody will understand it. Make it too obvious, and it will be boring.

To be frank, a cartoonist cannot tell another cartoonist “hey, tank and flag are already taken.” Otherwise a singer could go on like “I’ve got dips on the words love, heart, sky,” for example.

Clearly there are limits to that, don’t get me wrong. Similarity doesn’t mean sameness – although sometimes two cartoonists can have the exact same idea, and realize it almost in the same way. Of course, a cartoonist cannot go over the line of someone else’s cartoon – I’ve seen that, and that is plagiarism.

Let’s keep our eyes on the target, please

Editorial cartoonists are professionals and, as such, they try to make a living out of their drawing. It is difficult, maybe even impossible, in the era of social media, and when competition is as fierce as it can be.

But let’s remember cartoons are also activism. We draw about topics we care about, for people to care about them. I don’t go on drawing much more cartoons than I will sell only for the sake of passing time. It’s always going to be a losing game, for the 99% of cartoonists.

In Italy, we say “It’s a war of the rags.” La guerra degli stracci, that is, a war among people without money. Almost no money is involved, only the pride of having drawn the first tank, the first flag. Can we really claim our tank was the first-ever? I do not believe so.

My only answer for who tells me “I already drew the tank and the flag” or “I already drew the flag and the mask” or whatever else, is: “Ok, fair enough.”

Fair enough, but also, who cares! Cartoons need to make a dent in the public opinion. And if the best way to sensitize people to the Israel-Palestine problem is to draw a thousand cartoons with tanks and flags, then so be it.

Plagiarize away, please.

These are only some of the many cartoons containing tanks and flags I could easily find on the Cartoon Movement. By Ismael Hammad, Rafat Alkhateeb, Marco De Angelis, Vasco Gargalo, Gianfranco Uber


Published by Emanuele

Emanuele Del Rosso is an Italian communications specialist and award-winning editorial cartoonist. Find him on Twitter and Instagram @emadelrosso

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