Last year when I was living and working in Seoul, Korea I witnessed plagiarism everywhere. I'd run into a hairdresser that had taken it's visual identity from Starbucks, Ajummas (Korean word for older women) selling street food and rocking Supreme hoodies, and a cafe that used Edvard Munch's "The Scream" -painting as its visual branding. Plagiarism in Korea was so blunt and meticulous that it became kitsch and fun. Most people understood where the original idea came from and that was enough for them.
After starting to work at a marketing agency with some of my Korean colleagues, I soon found out we had a different meaning of what a reference image is. To many of them it represented something that the campaign would ultimately be like. As for me, it represented something that inspired me. My Korean colleagues explained that copying is not necessarily a bad thing in Korean culture, especially if you copy someone established. They felt that if you copy an idea, it's something that's been proved to work, in other words, a "guarantee" of quality. When I thought about it that way, it kind of makes sense. Fear plays a huge role in our decision making so copying an idea might seem tempting and safe. My argument to my colleagues was, by copying we're not doing anything extraordinary and that's what our clients pay us for.
In the world of street dancing, copying someone's moves, is known as biting - and it's definitely not acceptable. In street dances, there are a sets of foundational moves that were developed by the originators of the dance - these moves belong to everyone nowadays but it's the dancers' responsibility to study the history of the dance, find out who created the moves and give credit to the originators. There's also a word called flipping. It means taking someone's move and tweaking it. For example, you take foundational move and reimagine how this move would look like if an elephant did it, or how the move would look like if you could use only your other leg when doing the move. That's flipping - taking something, being inspired by it, tweaking it and coming up with something new. But for people, copying is natural, it's a way to learn, as well as a way to show admiration. Have you ever noticed how people mimic the body language of someone they like or respect? By copying we learn a language and that's how we learn dance moves too.
As I work as a creative director for international brands, some of the my clients ask me how do I come up with ideas. To exacerbate, I sometimes tell them that my job is easy. I just observe trends and pheneomena from different subcultures and bring them to the corporate context. Smoke bombs were first used by football fans, then they ended into Rihanna's video. Having an executive light up a smokebomb at a corporate launch event, makes her or him look cooler. That's flipping a visual idea.
I believe Steve Jobs was talking about flipping when he said he's been shameless about stealing great ideas when giving an interview to Robert X. Cringely in 1995 for the PBS documentary. Sure, Mr. Jobs and the team at Apple were very inspired by the design of brands like Braun and Leica. Apple copied something very essential of these brands' functionality and aesthetics but took it all to a whole new context. One might say Apple was flipping, not biting.
The most painful thing to admit about copying is that I've done it myself! Several years ago I was a young entrepreneur running an experiential marketing agency in Finland. For a promotional event in a mall, our team executed an idea that wasn't ours. Actually we had a original concept first, but the client didn't feel it was striking enough so we had to have something new to present to them...and real fast. We did the vertical catwalk where models walked on the wall. Sure, the concept of a vertical catwalk has been copied all over the world but me and my team didn't bring anything new to the concept. I apologize and want to give respect to the people who originally created this idea. I'm ashamed of copying it and never use it on my portfolio but it helped me learn and understand that I never want to copy again.
In the world of street dancing there are no written patents or copywright laws, it's the role of elders and authotities of the community to put the plagurists in their place. That's why the most experienced dancers judge competitions and biters will be given a lesson by being shamed at the dance circles. When I was running an experiential agency, I was a young kid who wanted to learn but didn't have the elders around me to give me a lesson.
Ironically when I was living in Korea I was given a taste of how it feels. At one point my ideas were harshy stolen and on another occasion, another agency was heavily inspired by our work, to say the least. You have the feeling of being robbed although you should feel honored and proud you're an inspiration. And I was surely given a taste of my own medicine.
Lately there's been a lot of debate about big brands copying ideas from both indie labels and major designers without consequences because of loose patent boundaries. Let me give you a couple of examples. Forever21 bit Emily Oberg's Sporty & Rich -brand and Spanish fast fashion giant, Zara, is been accused of copying indie artist Tuesday Bassen and several other of her colleagues. Copying seems to have become a norm not only in Asia but also in the Western world.
How do you draw the line between flipping and biting? If there's absolutely nothing new added to the idea, then it's simply copying - and unacceptable. When you look at the big picture, there are so many people working in the creative industries who are not really creative. I think the world we live in is too fast-paced for copyright laws to keep up with the speed. It's the role of the authories of any industry to name and shame the copycats and most imporantly, we us customers need to select carefully which brands we support.
The good thing is that those who come up with ideas, will come up with new ones. Plagurists will always stay a step behind.
Don't bite, respect the copyright.
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