Shia’s Plagiarism Problem And What It Says About IP On The Internet

January 17, 2014

shia labeouf 660 reuters 1When news of Shia LeBeouf’s plagiarism first surfaced, I didn’t make too much of it.  That’s because I misunderstood. I thought he “borrowed” a little too heavily, which occurs all the time and is pretty easy to do. What he actually did was adapt a graphic novel into a film without permission from or notification to the novel’s author, Daniel Clowes. Not so easy to do, but oh well. It was all a misunderstanding.

But then LaBeouf said “sorry for stealing” with an apology that itself was partially plagiarized.

And then, for that act of plagiarism, he started publicly flagellating himself on Twitter with Tweets that (you guessed it) he also apparently plagiarized. For those of you keeping track at home, that’s three different instance of plagiarism in quick succession.

So, LaBeouf is at best, not very polite and, at worse, a tactless thief. Whichever of those things he is, he is also a provocateur. At some point in defending his…well, whatever it is that he did, he claimed that “authorship is censorship” and, when speaking about art, intoned that
“it wants to be free.”

I don’t agree with what LaBeouf did. At the very minimum, I think creators are entitled to recognition for their work and playing fast and loose, as LaBeouf did, deprives them of that.

That being said, the Internet has changed the conventional (if not legal) wisdom around concepts of authorship and ownership. It has also proved a great challenge to intellectual property protections like trademark and copyright, to put it mildly.

On the Internet, a creative work is often the base material to be riffed on by someone else, be that Bad Lip Reading or Vintage-Inspired ‘Star Wars’ Travel Posters or “Harry Potter” fan fiction.

To greatly generalize it, the fact that Internet has a very liberal attitude toward using other people’s work hasn’t significantly changed the legal doctrines of copyright, trademark, fair use and parody (key words in that sentence: “greatly generalize” and “significantly”). Whether they ever will is an open question. I do think it’s worth paying attention to, since the Internet is such a huge creative force that the law continues to struggle to corral.