Plagiarism, Shia LaBeouf, and the Phenomenal Daniel Clowes

The action or practice of plagiarizing; the wrongful appropriation or purloining, and publication as one’s own, of the ideas, or the expression of the ideas (literary, artistic, musical, mechanical, etc.) of another.  –Definition of plagiarism in The Oxford English Dictionary

Snapshot from LA Times article

For the past month, there has been a brouhaha over the obvious lifting and plagiarizing of a graphic short story by the artist Daniel Clowes. The story, originally anthologized by Zadie Smith in The Book of Other People, features a film critic and titular character named Justin M. Damiano. The story is fascinating especially for those interested in film/arts critique. Actor-turned-filmmaker Shia LaBeouf adapted Clowes’ story for a short film of his own titled Howard Cantour.com. Both are about an internet film critic who  extrapolates on the notion that film critics can make or break a film. Those familiar with Clowes’ original story will be baffled by the verbatim representation in the film, which was not authorized by Clowes and was a shock to both him and his publisher. LaBeouf didn’t seek the rights or acknowledge Clowes and “Justin M. Damiano” at all in the process.

Plagiarism has always been a touchy subject. When it occurs–or even with just a lisping whiff of it–our opinions are usually quite strong, both personally and litigiously. When I was a college student, in my introductory poetry class we were taught about found poetry, which according to poets.org is: found poems take existing texts and refashion them, reorder them, and present them as poems. We were essentially given the green light to steal and when the professor was pressed more on the area of plagiarism to create these word collages, she put on a little grin and her pupils broadened.

I suppose the difference between what Shia LaBeouf did and a room full of nineteen-year-old undergrads did lies with the idea of creating something new out of re-purposing. LaBeouf blatantly stole from Daniel Clowes; he was only inspired by him enough to take his story and photocopy it into a new medium.

In the above image, Marcel Duchamp takes the Mona Lisa and adds a bit of a spin to the sixteenth century canvas. This 1919 work was different from his other readymades, but he still transformed a piece of art into something else, adding a commentary and attitude. We all remember that iconic image of Barack Obama by the artist Shepard Fairey. The Associated Press got all hot and bothered because the original photo that Fairey used was not his own–it was taken by a photographer that was on assignment for the AP. The original photographer claimed he held the copyright and enjoyed Fairey’s transformation of the image. Fairey’s main defense was that his own visual had been completely transformed from the original, making it something wholly different (which falls in the realm of fair use exemption).

But coming back to the original predicament: it is clear-cut that LaBeouf plagiarized Daniel Clowes. He purloined the original graphic short story with intent to pass it as his own creation. He was not influenced, for the dialogue and voice-over is either word-for-word or nearly so. I’m not going to delve into the internet freak show that LaBeouf has crowned himself ringmaster of (that’s what Google is for). It’s a shame though. I find it perplexing that LaBeouf didn’t first acquire the rights because the short film itself is very enjoyable and well-made. Instead of taking a foot forward into a potential interesting career as a film maker, he has sunk into some wonderland madness of his own doing. The film has been removed from many places online, but when you’re done reading Daniel Clowes’ original story you can still watch it on YouTube.

Resources…

  • My recommendation for more Clowes readings are the full-length graphic novels Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron and David Boring.
  • Reality Hunger:A Manifesto by David Shields is a mash-up of other sources and quotes with the intent being to have us think about art and the way it is re-appropriated.
  • Jonathan Lethem’s article in Harper’s titled “The Ecstasy of Influence” has the subtitle “a plagiarism.” It is a defense of plagiarism and like the subtitle, the sentences are lifted from other sources.
  • The recent court case concerning which of the Sherlock Holmes stories and characters are in the public domain.
  • Howard Cantour.com short film,
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