Is it Copying, or Just Inspiration?

Is it Copying, or Just Inspiration?

You’re scrolling through social media when you see a photograph that looks terribly familiar; it looks so much like one of your photographs that it takes you a minute to realize that it’s some else’s work. What do you do?

If this has not happened to you yet, count yourself lucky. There’s no feeling quite like having worked hard to bring a concept to life, only to watch someone else receive praise—or worse, payment—for your pirated idea. While you sit there boiling with righteous indignation, you ask yourself: do I confront the person? And if you do, what happens when the person shrugs you off and says, “I’ve never even seen your work before,” or, worse, “it’s just inspiration, everybody gets inspired by everybody else, you should take it as a compliment.”

What do you do when you get accused of copying another photographers work? How do you know where the boundary lies between inspiration, and copying? And is there anything we, as a community, can do to prevent copying and foster healthy inspiration? If we can’t prevent copying, how do we handle it?

When talking about the issue of idea thievery in photography, someone always brings up the maxim, “good artists borrow; great artists steal,” as a way to explain or excuse the offending photographer, but aside from the questionable history of this quote—which appears to have begun life referring to poetry and saying exactly the opposite—it’s important for us to ask ourselves if artists are really condoning the theft of their own ideas. I can't imagine so, since many artists know what it's like to have an idea pirated. I take this quote to mean that when something in art is borrowed, it is reproduced, often to the detriment of the original artist and their concept. The creative signature of the original is still clearly visible. It’s a copy.

When an idea is stolen, just like the word implies, it is taken and made the property of the thief. When you make something your own, you put your signature on it, you take an idea or a detail, and twist it until it's removed from belonging solely to the original artist and makes it something new and different. This is done to concepts in art, literature, and film every day, resulting in more unique work and different takes on perennial themes.

A post and light setup that are fairly common to beauty photography, but made unique by the model, Charlee Johnsen, and creative choices of the makeup artist, Kat DeJesus

Originality is hard to come by, though, and with the amount of imagery we take in daily, there will absolutely be traces in our own work of photographs and photographers that have inspired us. And sometimes a concept becomes so ubiquitous that no one thinks twice when seeing another iteration of it: see milk baths, for example. For the most part, no one has a problem with incidental similarities, or the use of concepts that have been re-hashed so many times they cease to belong to anyone. And since one cannot copyright an idea, only the expression of an idea, how do we know where the line between inspiration and copying lies? And, once we’ve established that line, how do we respond when a photographer steps over it?

Many of us are drawing from the same wells of cultural experience and from the pool of available imagery, so it seems obvious that things like the usage of individual light set-ups, concepts, makeup styles, poses, wardrobe, or locations wouldn’t constitute copying on their own. But, when the offending image includes the same concept, light set-up, makeup, pose, wardrobe, and location, I think it’s safe to say a photographer has moved into dangerous territory. But what about every photographer who ever posed a family in a field at sunset? A pretty girl in the woods (or any other outdoor location, for that matter) wearing a spectacular dress?

These kinds of images are common enough that they’ve almost become cliché. Do we ignore them because so many people have recreated them, or because, in portraiture, it’s the individual that’s generally the most important part?

This makes me wonder whether issue of copying only comes into play when someone hits the right combination of originality of the source material, the purpose of the shot, and the market. I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen this issue arise much less often in portrait photography, possibly for the reason I mentioned above: the portrait is about the person, and the idea is secondary, whereas in genres like beauty photography, conceptual or narrative photography, and fashion, the idea or the story are more important than the model, who often serves as another vehicle for telling the story.

A front-facing beauty shot using a beauty dish as a key light. A pose and light set-up that is by no means unique, but the resulting image is made so by the model.
Model: Charlee Johnsen MUAH: Kat DeJesus

Looking at an image and being inspired by the light usage, the pose, the subject, the camera angle, etc. seems perfectly natural. Photographers even teach each workshops that allow us to make our work look just like theirs. So how many boxes do you have to check before the work becomes copying?

At the end of the day, the issue may be like porn: you know it when you see it. There don’t seem to be any hard and fast rules that say categorically, “you can do this much, but once you do such-and-such, you’ve gone too far.” Less like a line in the sand, and more like a wide swath of swampland between two properties that neither land owner really wants to claim. The farther you are to one side, the more in danger you are of trespassing.

And when someone does take one step too far and ends up on your land, what do you do? I’m not a fan of the mob mentality, where everyone descends on the offender like a hungry pack of wild dogs, but I also find it morally reprehensible for someone to profit off someone else’s hard work.

I realize I’ve put forth more questions than answers, but that’s because I want to start a conversation. I’ve seen photographers accused of stealing an image when they genuinely had no idea another similar image existed, and I’ve seen photographers blatantly pirate another photographers work and try to make a profit from it. I’ve seen a photographer use the same unique location, same light, same composition as a photographer they admired, where the final image really only differed in the subjects of the photo, and wondered: is this pushing the limits? How far do you let someone else go before you say, “hey, that’s not cool.”

Below is an example of having gone too far. The original images were created by photographer Alana Tyler Slutsky for Paper Magazine, and the copies were created for an editorial in an online magazine, who thankfully pulled them once they were made aware of the theft. What makes the copying so egregious is the unique concept, which begs the question: what is the likelihood that the second photographer would have come up with the same concept, to include the colored gloves, on their own? Unfortunately for the copying photographer, the resulting image was nowhere near as strong as the original in way, from angle to light choice, and hair styling. It was a copy that did nothing new or different with the original artists idea, resulting in a photograph that pales in comparison to the original.

Does the difference in angle and lighting make the first shot unique enough to excuse the photographer from copying?

For examples of those ubiquitous, cliche images, one has only to scroll through instagram to see someone on a cliff with their arms raised, jumping families, water hair flips, or couples wrapped in Christmas lights. No one cries foul when someone reproduces these ideas because they're so ubiquitous that no one owns the idea anymore. If someone, or a group of someones, had stood up when the first copy-cat image arose, would our community have been forced to use more original ideas? Let’s have a conversation about what is acceptable, how far is too far, and what can we do when someone steps on our toes?

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21 Comments

Michael Jin's picture

I think "too far" is determined by the intent of the work and the context in which it's presented.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Grace Jones, that's who comes to my mind first when I see these 2 images. I couldn't find Grace with the exact hair do in a quick search, but that's so Grace's '80's look to me. I really should say style rather than look.

lacanfora's picture

Earlier in the year, I became acquainted with another local photographer through Instagram & we both started following one another. I shot a sunset photo at the beach in my hometown on Thanksgiving, taken from a particular vantage point ( https://www.flickr.com/photos/angeldan/45095830095/ ) etc., then posted it to Instagram. This photographer - who is clearly an aspiring "influencer" - raved about the shot. Then, 2 days later, he posted a shot that was identical in every way to mine! I was super annoyed. I know I don't own the view but it was clear he'd copied me, right down to the processing. That he didn't even have the decency to wait awhile to post it or to give me a heads-up was really weasly of him. It made me rethink why I even post photos to Instagram if people are just going to rip them off.

David Pavlich's picture

When I lived in Mandeville, LA, I shot a ton of Sunsets on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain from basically three spots. Not one was even remotely the same, save the location. I'd like to see her shot next to your shot to see if it's "identical in every way." I say that because clouds and water motion are very random and the chance that she matched your shot in every way is slim at best. It may be very similar, but identical in every way?

As someone already posted, an idea can't be copyrighted. The only thing that can be is the shot that you had taken. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if there weren't 3 or 4 hundred other people that have shot Sunsets from the same exact location that I did. Doesn't bother me in the least.

Leigh Miller's picture

Just about everything is a copy. Moot point.

Bill Wells's picture

I agree. If you look back far enough that great work you did, is pretty close to work someone else has already done. I do not think this is a copyright issue or thrift of work.

If your work is really unique, the people who matter will know the difference. If your work isn't particularly unique, or good, it doesn't matter.

Yan Pekar's picture

“There’s no feeling quite like having worked hard to bring a concept to life, only to watch someone else receive praise—or worse, payment—for your pirated idea.”

If your idea is patented then yes, the statement above makes sense. Otherwise, it does not - most ideas may come to many people’ mind; you are not the only one to think about some concept. If you don’t have a patent, there is not much you can do to protect your idea from being implemented elsewhere.

“thievery in photography” is one thing, inspiration is totally different. In most art colleges students spend a lot of time going to art galleries and museums and trying to reproduce masterpieces. The objective is not to steal the idea, but…when you try to copy someone’s work, it helps you understand how the masterpiece was created. In case of photography, for example, how the lighting was setup, composition, etc.

Most of us used reference photos when we prepared for photo shoots, or photos taken by others, for inspiration. This gave us ideas, and helped in creating photos for clients. Does it make us all thieves?

For example, there was a photographer who was the first one who created photos of a new born baby inserted in some things, like boxes, bags, etc. Then many tried to copy the concept. Are they all thieves? No. They just followed the trend.

Maybe we get confused or misunderstand what is “copyright”. My understanding (I may be wrong) is that copyright protects the images from being stolen, but it does not protect against someone else trying to recreate the same concept without stealing the exact image.

If you are so UNIQUE then create such images that nobody could recreate, or create them in such a way that it will not be clear how they were created.

The truth is, - most images we take are ordinary, which means we are not the only ones who can think of a similar concept. If you think your images were stolen and used without your permission, you have the right to take a legal action. If you are afraid of someone who can recreate your concept - do not show your images to anyone, ever:)

Henry Louey's picture

Irene Rudnyk - https://www.instagram.com/irenerudnykphoto/

Briefly had a video about this on Youtube earlier this week with her "girl on a bike" image being stolen

Assume people found the other photographer as the video was pull within hours

Yan Pekar's picture

Henry, I believe the article was about the cases where a similar concept is re-used or recreated by others rather than the cases when images get stolen.

Daniel Haußmann's picture

I followed her IG Story "rant" a while until I muted her stories. I mean, one the one hand she wants to be that influencer, teacher style photographer and when she actually influences someone to take her work as inspiration, she calls them out.

Crystal Johnson's picture

I spoke with her on IG about how there were so many darn photos of girls on vintage bikes with flower baskets. She was insanely condescending towards me and anyone that disagreed with her. I watched the video and she made a point where she had copied another photographer, and was humbled by the photographer contacting her about it. She NEVER contacted that guy to ask him HIS side of the story, and even when I mentioned her fans might find him because of her piss poor editing of his name, she quickly replied with 'my fans aren't 12 years old'. Chick does not know what mob mentality some fans have of big names.

Henry Louey's picture

Thanks Crystal. Though that's what might have happened.

Crystal Johnson's picture

It's really quite sad, because I do like her work. Had followed her for years, but her sense of entitlement over this idea, something that's been done so many darn times, and how she doesn't grasp what the outcome could be... I had to unsubscribe. These Youtube-photographers have such a damn ego.

Yan Pekar's picture

Yes, this is one of the examples when a concept is re-created and praise is received for images which look like the original concept. But then again - unless the idea is patented, anyone can copy it, or use as inspiration. But if you do it (re-creating someone else's concept), do not complain when others do it with your concept.

Zaque Eyn's picture

I like this thought experiment... From a music producer of over 20yrs and photographer for 3 here's my 2 sense... You can only copyright the image you took. You can't copyright an idea that is only an idea in your head and you can't copyright the way the image was set up, only the final image itself... correct? So honestly, and bluntly, get over it! Yes, get over it! Not trying to be mean or start a fight, but if everyone could copyright the actual content in the image the exact way it was shot by said person, then all creativity would be lost and anyone shooting anything would be in trouble and dealing with a lawsuit. Also, all those tutorials on people like Ansel Adams would be illegal pretty much, because if you use them to learn his style and use it, guess what? Lawsuit! Is this really the kind of world we want to live in? **Amendment: Further down the rabbit hole... If a scene or stuff in photo is copyright-able, than any use of the same model would be an infringement. Shooting the same model for a different magazine for instance, lawsuit! Everyone would be out of work!

Adriano Brigante's picture

"Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy." -- Chuck Palahniuk.

Rifki Syahputra's picture

we live with other 7 billion humans on the planet
wanna try to be unique?

The closest thing this has happened to me, was one really inferior copy. But I wasn't mad because i know that person was inspired by my works.

Putting that one aside, so far no one else in the same community or genre of photography i do, has been able to copy my photography works even if they wanted to. My photos have become sort of an identity of mine, an artist's identity, even if the watermark was removed ppl would recognise it's my work.

Photographers copy, artists steel.

Greg Desiatov's picture

I have had this very issue happen to me a number of times over the years but one of the very first examples of one of my concepts being used happened back in 2012 when I produced the image on the left and 4 months after posting my image, I had this crew from Lithuania copy my concept and create the image on the right.

They had some BTS shots on their profile and at one stage even had the same hair style.

At the time I was pretty annoyed but these days it doesn't bother me as much in fact, it's kind flattering as long as I don't find out they made money out of my idea! LOL

The irony of this is when I first started shooting many years ago, I actually did the same thing and copied a couple of concepts to a 'T'. In those days it wasn't about trying to steal an idea and claim credit for it but more the case of learning a new technique and especially for me, the lighting.

Now-a-days I get inspired by many ideas from photographers and other sources but I do go out of my way to make sure the concept becomes my own unique take on it.