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Plagiarism in Photography

Updated: Nov 30, 2019

I recently sat in on a talk given by Charles Calleja about the #MIPP Competition #Judging Process and possible rule changes. In amongst the topics of conversation was #Plagiarism and what actually constitutes a breach of rules. I felt that it was an important part of the process and needed to be #clarified more. This prompted me to compose this #essay on the subject in order to make the subject (hopefully) a little clearer.


Plagiarism is a term most often used in context with the written word, however it’s becoming an issue with #imagery in general. This is the practice of #appropriation or #stealing of another’s work and presenting it as your own. There are many texts written on the subject but I still find them unclear and tend to confuse the issue further rather than clarifying it.


Plagiarism is not actually a crime! It can however be prosecuted under copyright law and is absolutely #morally wrong. You cannot however, copyright an idea and this is where the problem lies. If you take that idea and adopt it as your own without giving reference or acknowledgement to the #original work, then this is plagiarism. This is the case when artwork is copied so closely to the extent that the ‘idea’ behind the image is indistinguishable from the original. Bob Carlos Clark once said ‘There’s always one good idea you can steal’. I don’t think he meant abject appropriation of the idea or image, but we are all affected by what we see and experience all around us and even from the past. How many of you have been shown how to use lighting in portraiture and #copied the setup, or used a set of filters #developed by someone else for use in Photoshop to mimic their style?


#COPYRIGHT – is a violation of rights when restricted in use, is compromised without the consent of the holder.


#PLAGIARISM – is a moral offence when someone ‘benefits’ from the use of another’s work without due reference to the original author, and claiming it to be original work.


Let’s look at some #examples (including a few from my own experiences) to help us in understanding the issue. Research suggests that there can be up to 10 different types of Plagiarism, however we are only going to concentrate on 4 main types applicable to imagery…….


#DIRECT plagiarism – is the easiest form to understand. Let us assume that someone sees an image on your website, Facebook page, or Google images, copies and pastes it to their own site or prints it, and passes it off as their own. This is stealing and clearly a breach of copyright which is punishable under the law. There is no effort to acknowledge true ownership and the offender clearly attempts to benefit from using your image. The same is true if someone copies and pastes a section of text from your web pages without even attempting to change the syntax (or spelling mistakes) and has has happened to me personally.

Two different websites, same image, no acknowledgements. This would be considered DIRECT Plagiarism and a breach of copyright (image source: stopstealingphotos.com)

Quite frankly there is not a lot we can do about this unless we are willing to bring a court action! This takes time and money, neither of which people such as ourselves have an abundance of. The best we can hope for is to issue a ‘cease and desist’ order. The letter may warn that if the recipient does not discontinue the specified conduct, or take certain actions, by deadlines set in the letter, that party may be sued. If we entered a print into competition and were found to have undertook Direct Plagiarism, we could expect to be disqualified without recourse, or worse still be banned from entering in future. If the owner of the original image found out, this could also lead to a civil action and prosecution.


#SELF plagiarism – doesn’t sound too bad but is in itself morally wrong. Let us say you enter a print into competition or a distinctions assessment as a colour image. Change the image to black and white then re-use it either in another section of the same competition or assessment (or any subsequent one) and you have fallen foul of the judging criteria. You shouldn’t even try to disguise the issue by saying the colour image was shot two seconds prior to the following image. One colour and one black and white. This is just a con – don’t dupe the viewer……the same is true even if you just use a crop from the original image. Assessing criteria may want to see the original RAW file so they can examine EXIF date!


An example of SELF Plagiarism. The same author, same image entered into two different competitions. (image source Tom Lee - not an actual event)

As photographers we strive all the time to be taken seriously by the art establishment. This merely gives them more ammunition with which to keep us down. If you’re talented enough you will have an abundance of images to choose from. Don’t give assessors an excuse to disqualify your work just because you can’t be more innovative in your selections.


#MOSAIC plagiarism – is usually applied in a textual context, but applies to photography in equal measure. Copy (or appropriate) pieces of work from several sources (not your own, say Google) to make an image which is individual to you. Can you claim this as your own work?


This is a difficult one. Let’s say you just appropriate the images you use without acknowledging the original author(s), maybe because you don’t know who they are. This is definite plagiarism, but should you fear prosecution? If you do not intend to benefit from the finished work, then this falls into the final category of Accidental Plagiarism which we discuss next. If, however you intend to benefit from the work (competition, payment, qualifications etc;) Then you can expect to cop a heavy penalty in the courts if you have been found to infringe copyright and get caught.


If you intend to use images from other sources, then use royalty free sources and pay for them. This will usually give you rights to use the images commercially and you can sleep easy at night. Beware rules of competitions or qualification assessments. They may well state that all images (or parts thereof) must have been taken by the author.


A composite image using several elements. The model and background are my own images but the wings were from stock that I paid for giving me commercial rights. The image was used to perfect my compositing skills and has never been used for ‘benefit’. Although considered MOSAIC Plagiarism, I have not fallen foul of the usage rules (image source: Tom Lee)

#ACCIDENTAL plagiarism – is when a person does not intend to benefit from the use of the image(s) but neglects to acknowledge the original source (or idea). In the world of the internet, this happens all too often and is difficult to prove ‘intent’. Was it deliberate to use an image by someone else for your own purposes, to further your popularity or was it an oversight?


When we share an image on Facebook, it usually indicates where or who the original source was. But take this article for instance, if I use an image to illustrate a point and do not acknowledge the source, I’m not intending to benefit from use of the image but have committed an act of plagiarism.


In Practice


Now that we have defined the various acts of plagiarism (that essentially concern us as photographers), what can we do to avoid falling into some obvious traps? If you intend to build your personal portfolio and practice a particular technique, you are not intending to profit by creation and there is no problem, unless you want to exhibit then acknowledgement or reference to the original idea or work would be appropriate. (ie – images based on the work of ANOther or created based on an original idea by ANOther). This would be a problem if you were not able to acknowledge the idea or source, for instance in a competition.


If you copy a particular authors style then you are plagiarising their style. On the other hand, if you copy the styles of several authors to create your own you are not attempting to be a clone. Remember to acknowledge your inspiration, none can hang you for it!

This brings into play a big can of worms and is so difficult to prove even in court! With the immense amount of imagery available to us on the internet via Google and social websites, even if an image looks remotely like another person’s work, it’s difficult to prove that inspiration did not come from several different sources. Therefore, if you copy someone’s work style or image, it must be sufficiently different from the original work not to be considered plagiarism.


I recently completed a workshop for MIPP where I attempted to ‘copy’ the style of many types of movie posters. I was careful to acknowledge the original poster that gave me the inspiration to create a similar one of my own. I therefore acknowledged my source and used all of my own images and techniques to create a totally new original, albeit based on another artists work. The movie posters I created were based on many different genres and styles so cannot be considered plagiarism. There is also a disclaimer on my website acknowledging that some posters may look similar to actual posters but are not representative of any actors, movies or storylines of film past or present. In other words; ‘I stole the idea’, but did not plagiarise the work – except possibly one!


An example of me falling foul of my own rules….I recently removed this image (right) from my website because the relationships with the original (left) were too similar. I shot all the images, used a different model, technique, weapon, posing and styling was slightly different, and acknowledged the source, but is too close for comfort. I could be accused of Plagiarism and possible breach of copyright, but would still be difficult to prove in law. I did use it in my poster workshop however, as I was not ‘intending to benefit’ from use of the image.

Additional reading relating to the use of idea, coincidence and plagiarism can be seen on the fstoppers website discussing the images below:


So, what about landscapes? Ansel Adams is probably the most famous landscape photographer there is, and has popularised many areas of the planet with inspiring work. Does this mean we should credit him with every image taken by a visitor who happens to shoot the same scene? The landscape was there even before Ansel set up his tripod legs, so should he have credited ‘the creator’ on all his images?


This is obviously pure nonsense but often photographers will shoot in groups and take similar images collectively. Whilst taking a similar shot to your colleague may be technically OK and both photographers can claim it as being the originator, submitting both images to a third party for scrutiny shows lack of thought and creativity by at least one of the authors. Talk to one another and resolve the issue before the images are used! Often portrait groups will ban the use of any images taken during workshops, except for use with personal portfolios because lighting and posing may not have been controlled by the originator of the image.

Il-Qarraba by Keith Ellul

The images (left) were taken at the same time by from almost at the same viewpoint.


Whilst both images can be considered ‘originals’, I would never consider placing my image in any form of opposition with Keith’s. Apart from his image being similar to mine, the assessors/judges or viewing public would have a hard time deciding who was plagiarising who, and we would both be at risk of damaged reputations.

Il-Qarraba by Tom Lee

The easy solution would be to see if Keith was intending to use his image (or others taken at the same time) for display or be shown in another environment that would place us in direct conflict.


This of course does not preclude anyone else from displaying a similar shot of what is a common beauty spot on the relatively small island of Malta.



The real proof of the creative genius is usually when the images are processed. Images are often finalised according to the authors ‘experience’ or ‘sense of place’ at the time of shooting and will each take on totally different feel. Unless of course they have copied each other’s style!!! Above all be careful, thoughtful and enjoy your photography.