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Italy, 2002. Canon EOS 1Ds, Canon 14mm lens, stitched
1/60 second @ f8, ISO 800, hand-held, no filter

What’s the difference between plagiarism and inspiration? Plagiarism is when you copy the work of one person, inspiration is when you copy the work of hundreds.

With so many people coming into photography, some of the basic morals and ethics have been ignored, forgotten or perhaps never learned. While it’s acceptable to copy an image on the internet and post it somewhere else, it’s not acceptable to pretend it’s your own work or idea.

There’s a fine line between copying and being inspired. Renaissance artists began their careers copying the work of their masters. Even today, painters can copy the work of masters and call it a homage. I’m not exactly sure why it is acceptable in the contemporary art world. Perhaps it’s because to copy a painting you still have to paint it, but forgers go to jail for passing off a work as being something it is not.

So, context is important. A photographer copying the work of another is only acceptable as a learning experience. In fact, it’s a great way to develop your skills and is to be encouraged. However, once you have completed your copy, you should never enter it into a photography competition as though it were your own work. Nor should you post it on the internet, even if you admit it is a copy and reference the original artist. If it’s a copy, you are breaching copyright.

So, what’s the difference between copying (plagiarism) and inspiration (where you are influenced by another artist’s work)? And what does it have to do with my photo of Santa Maria dei Miracoli?

Copying simply reproduces what has already been done, whereas inspiration takes your photograph to a new place.

There’s nothing wrong with looking at the work of Ansel Adams and deciding to shoot landscapes in black and white. However, to work out where Ansel put his tripod and take the exact same photograph is different. You may argue that the weather or the time of day is different, but how much of the photograph is really yours? What was your intention?

The argument becomes much more complicated when photographing famous landmarks like Uluru or the Sydney Opera House. Thousands of people take photographs from the same standpoint every day, so if we take one as well, are we plagiarists? To be a plagiarist, you need to copy the work of someone else. While your photograph of a famous landmark might look like a lot of other photographs, it doesn’t make you a plagiarist. You’d have to go to the landmark with another photographer’s image in mind, intending to copy it.

Santa Maria dei Miracoli is a composite of a stitched background, a new sky and the small girl in the foreground. It won a number of awards around the world and was featured in several magazines.

You can imagine my surprise a few years later when a photograph turned up in a competition with an almost identical treatment, but two small girls in red capes in the foreground.

I was one of the judges, so I gave the print the lowest score possible. Was this photograph a copy? It had two little girls, not one, so it was different. Was that difference enough to make it original? I’m not sure how a court would rule, but in my mind it was a direct copy. Very flattering, of course, but I was not impressed.

However, the other judges were very impressed and the photograph received a silver award. Being a plagiarist doesn’t mean you will always be caught out, but it doesn’t make it right.

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