Creativity, one might say, is the never-ending search for the New: engaging in that ancient act of divining out of the void things that never were nor could have been without the artist at work. Someone else might say that this is abject nonsense and that nothing can truly be new under the sun, just links along endless lines of appropriation. “Good Artists Copy” goes one proverb commonly ascribed to Pablo Picasso “but Great Artists Steal.”
Of course, no one celebrates a theft after the thief is caught. Philippine social media was whipped into a furore recently over a fan rendering of some new local show that looked a little too closely life an American series. This certainly wasn’t the first time this happened(the shameless rip-off has a long and storied history in Filipino film and television) and neither was it an issue endemic to the Philippines (Tokyo had to backpedal their entire Olympic branding shortly before the Rio Games when allegations of plagiarism arose over Tokyo 2020’s original logo) but the public’s reaction to the issue makes for a curious case study, particularly to how the producers of the show justified the similarities.
For a brief moment, the question of inspiration, universal motifs, intellectual property and plagiarism became a topic for public conversation. Are we really all drawing from the same old stories? If we are then what are artists and writers actually being paid for to do? Is plagiarism still a thing then? And even if it wasn't, why are emotions so usually flared when we come across works that come across us as being "unoriginal?" Given the nature of our work, we at Gunship Revolution thought this was a matter worthy of deeper examination.
ORIGINALITY AMONG THE ARCHETYPES
Back when I was studying literature, we were taught that no new literary device has been invented since the author Cervantes invented the last ones for his novel "Don Quixote." I'm not entirely sure how true this was but the argument that creativity is more a matter of recycling elements than producing real novelty has been in vogue for at least a hundred years. Renewed interest in the work of Joseph Campbell during the last decade found his concept of the Hero's Journey - a formula of consequent plot points and key character traits that are identifiable from mythic accounts of battling demigods and epic journeys - applying to modern myths like Harry Potter, the Hunger Games and Twilight. Even there, the idea of recurring narrative elements isn't even originally Campbell's; these recurring elements are drawn from a concept popularized by Carl Jung: the Archetype.
During the aforementioned imbroglio, it was argued that this new show about a hooded, crime-fighting modern-day archer had not been a rip-off of the popular CW action drama "Arrow" but was an adaptation of the archetypical - and public domain - character Robin Hood. Supporters of the local show argued that any similarities between the two were merely a reflection of the archetype they were both based on, the same way Gandalf alluded to Merlin Or the way Superman alluded to Jesus.
This did very little to change any minds after the show was decried as unoriginal weeks before it was launched but in many ways they did have a point: neither work was essentially original. If anything, "Arrow" was even less so, being a show adapted from a comic that was itself adapted from the archetype. Even then, being based from a public-domain archetype hardly exculpates the local show or its producers of the criticisms lobbied on them. It just means that being "unoriginal" may be the least of the show’s problems.
Can someone trace another artist's work and call it one's own? Of course, no illustrator alive can claim ownership to certain poses or to a wholly un-derivative personal style so drawing from those can't really be considered stealing. What about people who run other people's work through computer programs, using their skills and talents to modify these works enough to make them new and marketable products for sale at conventions? What about fan art? By definition, fan art can’t be original can they?
Well, if works cannot be original then we'd like to argue that they can at the very least be genuine. This is why we call pieces of art and literature "works" isn't it? We know work was somehow involved and that it came from the genuine effort of its maker? Sure, the recombinant parts are all recycled from ideas that may predate civilisation, but the effort of choosing, organising and fitting the elements together is no feat to balk at. Someone has to provide that effort and that effort merits a certain amount of credit.
When a person produces fan art, we don’t usually decry it for unoriginality because we usually already know whom to credit for the subject of the art: this is why fan art usually cannot be monetised the way the copyright owners can. We do credit fan artists, however, for what the work they bring in, rewarding the dexterity with which they intend their line-work or the know-how involved in mixing colours to convey depth or drama. Sure, tracing a work or running it through a program contains a modicum of effort but when the core value we get from the artwork comes from someone else’s skill and know-how, someone else then the core credit is rightfully someone else’s. This is what we call plagiarism. We might as well also call it stealing.
Having seen the trailers for the disputed local series, its certainly a product of genuine effort. It’s not original sure but its story, its characters and its settings did genuinely come from the people credited for it. So no, the show was not plagiarised. But was the furore just another online overreaction?
IN SEARCH OF THE AUTHENTIC
While we’ve established that the local show is about as original and as genuine as the American series, one major criticism remains: that the show was made solely to ride on the popularity of its “predecessor.” The show isn’t out yet and a final verdict is still up in the air but this does reveal something about how we judge the creative media we come across: that when we say we’re looking for “originality,” we often don’t mean that we’re looking for something we’ve never seen before. Instead, what we’re looking for a kind of authenticity where an artist or author creates something to be its own thing instead of convincing us its something else. It’s not necessarily passing off someone else’s hard work as yours but it IS giving your audience something less than an honest effort. It’s not something that can easily be quantified - even the artist doesn’t always knows when he or she is giving their honest best - but audiences can often tell. Inauthentic works will tend to be called lazy, formulaic, predictable, uninspired, or - indeed - unoriginal and disingenuous since works like these give people the impression that the work wasn’t made to give value but to take it from people. The show gave people the impression that it wasn’t made primarily to excite and entertain. They alleged that the effort and creativity was placed primarily on dressing up tired old action formulas with aesthetic elements that found recent popularity elsewhere. The problem was less about the fact that an eerily similar character was coming out on local television than the expectation that the character only looks similar to hide the fact that its going to be yet another paint-by-numbers drama. Unfortunately, the trailer does little to disabuse us of that notion.
In the end, Authenticity makes the difference between a work by an artist and an actual artwork. It is creating to give something out of yourself - to inspire, to entertain, maybe even to warn. It is why an artist works to master anatomy and perspective or why a film maker would retake scenes until they are perfect: because they are devoted to what they are giving before they deal with whatever it is they receive in return. If you feel like you’re overlooking this act of giving to solicit something from your clients or your audience - approval, money, likes, and so on - it may not make you any less of an artist but you may very well be producing something less than art.