The fine line between inspiration and plagiarism

The mankind has been stealing as long as people exist.

But apparently, nowadays it is a bit more than stealing apples from your neighbor’s garden: today theft happens in more various and more complicated ways than you could imagine – music legend Bob Dylan is being accused of copying painting motives during his world travels; visual plagiarism also seems to flourish, especially today when seemingly every second teenager uses a Canon EOS 600D (worth almost 1,000$) to photograph same objects as everybody has already taken a shot of. In the world of music everything is not that obvious as is in the visual arts – content theft can be disguised and titled as a so-called ‘mash-up’, ‘cover version’, ‘variation’ or ‘appropriation’. Still, don’t you think that Lady Gaga’s disco anthem “Born This Way” (2011) sounds a little bit too much like Madonna’s hit “Express yourself”, which was released 22 years before Gaga’s track?

Of course it would be essential to mention plagiarism in fashion. And in order to explain this subject matter it is more than convenient to refer to a fashion retailer, that can be seen as a huge threat for major fashion houses as Prada, Gucci and Co. – and I’m speaking of ZARA.

“For well-known designer names, who have an established history in the industry, it’s scary to think that someone could strategically come along and simply mimic their personal creations, using cheaper materials and selling at cheaper prices. The disappointing reality for these designers is that it happens, and will continue to happen.”

On top of that, ZARA doesn’t seem to make a big deal out of it – the collections sometimes are copied almost identically, like from Balmain 2010 fall/winter season:

ZARA also happens to “borrow” pictures and by this simultaneously fashion motives from no-name bloggers for the purpose of design layouts, such as:

Surprisingly, this kind of designing is not illegal – it is called “derivative artwork” and is also a category in the Copyright Act, which can be related with “art reproduction”:

“The original photo is the intellectual property of whoever took it, the drawing based on the photo is the property of the illustrator who drew it.”

The model from the first picture, Betty, a no-name blogger, was outraged about what has happened to her, naturally; especially because a portrait of hers was printed on thousands of shirts. Yet, ZARA did not violate any law in any respect, because the blogger was re-drawn on the shirts in a comic-like manner. Still, in February 2011, ZARA directly depicted images of bloger girls (19 year-old Michelle K from the Swiss and French Louise Ebel) – this happened, “of course”, without their permission.

In the end, Stradivarius, ZARA’s parent firm INDITEX, had to take off the shirts of the online sales.
So in other terms, Zara is following these steps concerning its basic concept:

1) Trend scouts look for fashion trends in all possible sources;
2) all of the ideas need to be redesigned slightly and of course
3) sold as soon as possible.

I guess this pretty much explains ZARA’s gigantic turnovers and constant stream of customers. The strategy of speed and scale keeps ZARA in competition and Daniel Piette, fashion director of Louis Vuitton, even entitled the fashion chain as “possibly the most innovative and devastating retailer in the world”.

So to put it in other words: the line between inspiration and plagiarism most certainly cannot be defined clearly. James Surowiecki from thenewyorker.com claimed “Sometimes imitation isn’t just the sincerest form of flattery. It’s also the most productive”. Mr Surowiecki also defended retailers like ZARA by mentioning the so-called Piracy paradox, which basically implies that weak intellectual-property rules, far from hurting the fashion industry, have instead been integral to its success. Buying a cheap knock-off instinctively increases the incentive to buy the original product, since fashion interested people are mostly following the lifestyle of the “rich and famous”, who most certainly wouldn’t buy an imitation. Also plagiarism encourages the designers to come up with new ideas in order to fight the copied trends.

During the course of time people imitated, copied and stole and always will do so. Now there are certain restrictions, which keep you from hurting the law and stealing someone’s creative property. Still, fashion, music and art show us, that basically everything is just being reinvented and taken as a sample. Only a few really are innovative and set new trends, which otherwise are going to be copied very soon. Or maybe sooner than they expect, like in the case ZARA and Balmain. Yet, blatantly copying ZARA makes high fashion trends wearable for the masses – and isn’t this definitely something positive? Also these trend imitations can be seen as a form of flattery – so why immediately point your finger at ZARA and blame them for being so ruthless at stealing? It would be not fair to omit disadvantages fast fashion always includes – child labor, impact on the environment and naturally the plagiarism issues.

But what can we do about this as a society which is addicted to these retailers? Could you personally abstain from buying ZARA, H&M & Co. clothing pieces – knowing where the items are produced and under which conditions the workers had to produce them? Respond in the comments below and say whether you would forego the opportunity of fast fashion as a sign of conscious resistance to the immoral or do you think ZARA’s and other fashion retailers’ strategy can be justified?

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2 Responses to The fine line between inspiration and plagiarism

  1. Nicpic says:

    Great Post! I absolutely loved it! I agree that stealing is not only as black and white anymore as it used to be some time ago. Now we live in a world of gray and plagiarism is definitively one of the shades! When listening to Lady Gaga I already had had the feeling that she looks and sound quite a lot like the Queen of Pop. But the similarities don’t stop there! Just like Madonna used to she tries to shock, irritate and excite the masses with her unusual looks and sometimes outrages songs.
    Concerning plagiarism I did not know to what an extend fashion retailer like Zara conduct it and even though I think that high fashion labels like Prada and Gucci don’t really care – their customers don’t just pay for the clothes but also the quality and name that goes along with it, therefore I guess they will never buy cheap knock-offs– I find it alarming that the Bloggers who are ripped off cannot legally do anything against it!

    One more thing that might be interesting in discussion of the plagiarism issue is that it actually has been scientifically proven that creating new stuff is almost impossible for people. All our brain can do is rearrange the pictures we already have seen or memorized and try to combine them to something new. Therefore the best way to try and create something “new” might be to get a lot of new input and inspiration.
    As to your questions I have to admit I would not forgo the opportunity of buying cheap clothes even though I know the disadvantages. In the end I just love clothes and a great variety too much – hi I’m just a girl right 😉

  2. Pingback: 3 weeks of blogging , being creative and exposing « fastexposure

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