Beastie boys check your head album cover

Plagiarism Vs Inspiration

As a creative you are always being inspired by something or someone, designers often begin a lot of projects by looking at other design, which is why there can be fashions in styles or similarities in works. Being inspired is in human nature and in fact being inspired to take a piece of work and make it better is pretty much old as the hills.

T. S. Eliot once wrote that the immature poet imitates and the mature poet plagiarizes. Goethe to Eckermann, before Eliot, said: “If you see a great master, you will always find that he used what was good in his predecessors, and that it was this which made him great.”

There was a time when this kind of overt plagiarism was less frowned upon, nowadays we have come full circle where any kind of similarities is not only frowned upon but punished financially through litigation. There is a murky line between being inspired by something and outright copying it. I think the line is a moral one and it sits roughly where, if you took something and brought nothing new to it, that you just mimicked it with no love, appreciation, respect or accreditation for the source, then that's plagiarism.

All creative enterprises can fall prey to this behaviour when they chase financial reward over creative excellence. Advertising agencies have a poor historical record for wholesale lifting of others work and repackaging as their own. The film industry not only suffers a dearth of fresh ideas but when it does bring one to life again its often stolen and the source left uncredited and out of pocket, Shia Lebeouf made a short film entitled ‘‘, it got much acclaim on the festival circuit, but the story was taken wholesale, scene for scene, line for line from A story by cartoonist Daniel Clowes, the only element that was different were the endcredits! Not long after these similarities were brought to light, Clowes’ publisher at Fantagraphics, Eric Reynolds, branded the film a “shameless theft.” Speaking to Wired, Reynolds said:

“My first reaction, before I even watched it, was basically that as much as the plot sounded like the Justin M. Damiano, I presumed that LaBeouf would be smart enough to change everything just enough to make it his own thing and shield himself from any legal liability, even if it didn’t excuse him from being a weasel. Which is why, when I actually started watching it, I almost spit out my coffee when I realized he lifted the script, word for word.”
While the lines between copying and inspiration may be murky, they can to my mind be distilled in two ways, firstly it’s okay to be inspired, even to do a piece that’s a homage, if its done from a genuine place of love, veneration and clear accreditation, name your hero! This is fine and is the kind of thing fans of any kind of art do all the time. The second path and for me this is where great leaps happen, is to take the source inspiration as a springboard, see it, hear it, love it, be inspired, distill and do better, build on the shoulders of giants.
You can see it in the work of Quentin Tarantino, distilling all his loves to create new compelling, retellings and combinations of old ideas. In music one of my favourite examples is the Beastie Boys and their album ‘Pauls Boutique’. ‘Pauls Boutique’ is their second album after the huge commercial success of their first album, the Beasties followed up with anything but what was expected. A band much vilified by the mainstream press and lacking any critical praise, no one expected them to rewrite the rules. The band moved to LA and joined up with music producers the Dust Brothers. The album they created has a mountain of samples of other pieces of music, from Motown to the Beatles, TV soundbites, funk bass lines, fast paced over lying lyrics which veer from idiocy to insight, beats and hooks all put together in a wholly new way. This album shouldn’t work such is the volume of sounds, reference points and innovation, they took literally every inspiration from irreverent to iconic and built a new sound.


Put together on samplers with tiny memories, small fragments of staggeringly disparate musics drop in, then are snatched away abruptly; rhythms and melodies remain in focus as textures and sounds constantly shift.
— Mojo Magazine

Such is the volume of samples that this album would be almost impossible to make today, you simply couldn’t get clearance or avoid the ensuing litigation. This is where an artist/artists build on what went before, they build upon it and make great leaps.
Speaking about the album 20 years on, Adam Yauch told Clash magazine,
“The Dust Brothers had a bunch of music together, before we arrived to work with them. As a result, a lot of the tracks come from songs they'd planned to release to clubs as instrumentals – "Shake Your Rump," for example. They'd put together some beats, basslines and guitar lines, all these loops together, and they were quite surprised when we said we wanted to rhyme on it, because they thought it was too dense. They offered to strip it down to just beats, but we wanted all of that stuff on there. I think half of the tracks were written when we got there, and the other half we wrote together." 


Musically, few hip-hop records have ever been so rich; it's not just the recontextulations of familiar music via samples, it's the flow of each song and the album as a whole, culminating in the widescreen suite that closes the record. Lyrically, the Beasties have never been better — not just because their jokes are razor-sharp, but because they construct full-bodied narratives and evocative portraits of characters and places. Few pop records offer this much to savor, and if Paul's Boutique only made a modest impact upon its initial release, over time its influence could be heard through pop and rap, yet no matter how its influence was felt, it stands alone as a record of stunning vision, maturity, and accomplishment.

Miles Davis said that he never got tired of listening to Paul's Boutique. Chuck D of Public Enemy was quoted as saying that the "dirty secret" among the black hip-hop community at the time of release was that "Paul's Boutique had the best beats." Mike D was once asked about any possible hesitation he or the band might have had regarding their overt "sampling" of several minutes of well-known Beatles background tracks, including the song "The End" on "The Sounds of Science". He claimed that the Beatles filed preliminary legal papers, and that his response was "What's cooler than getting sued by the Beatles?"

To be creative is to be inspired, to take everything that sparks, that ignites, that sets the juices flowing, to build upon it, to celebrate that inspiration, to build on the shoulders of giants, unafraid of the consequences and bring something wholly new and wonderful into being and in turn inspire someone else.