What to do when the plagiarist strikes?

On discovering that a piece of work he had created had ‘inspired’ a project from another studio, Richard Holman went through a range of emotions before realising that plagiarism can have its benefits

Of all the projects I’ve been involved with since my career in design and branding kicked off some 20 years ago, there are few I feel as fondly towards as the Studiocanal cinema ident. I remember the day we received the brief; the rush of excitement cut through with trepidation at being asked to create a sequence which would run in front of movies for years to come.

And I remember walking down the red carpet to the premiere of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy at the BFI in London to watch the ident go out for the first time. None of the glitterati in the auditorium could understand why a bunch of geeky looking designers at the back was standing up and cheering before the film had properly begun.

Even now, years later, when I’m at home on the sofa watching a movie with my kids, I still flush with pride when I hear those first few lustrous notes of Alexandre Desplat’s score, I see the flicker of light refracting through glass, and I realise this must be a Studiocanal movie.

So perhaps you can understand why when I saw the new Amazon opener last month my heart stopped dead.

It’s not the first time something I’ve made has been ripped off. But usually it’s by a student who’s yet to align their moral compass. Or some backwater TV channel in a far off land banking on the hope you’ll never see the evidence of their larceny.

This was something different. One of the biggest companies in the world, with coffers deep enough to engage any number of A-list creatives, designers and technicians, had commissioned a piece of work which even the most generous observer would have to concede owed a huge debt to our Studiocanal ident in both concept and execution.

I spoke with Grant Gilbert from DBLG, my fellow creative director on the project. We agreed the first thing to do was to let our clients at Studiocanal know, but this wasn’t straightforward as many of the people we’d originally worked with had already moved on.

While we waited for the slow wheels of the corporate and legal machine to begin turning I decided to write to the design agency. I have to say, this letter was a lot of fun to write. But as the first exhilarating rush of ‘you’ve been busted’ began to ebb, I realised that there was something about the snarky tone which didn’t sit quite right with me, and so the letter remains unsent.

Instead I started to muse on the question of originality and the theft of ideas.

All of us as creatives and designers knows that when it comes to an idea there is no such thing as a virgin birth. Inspiration is borne of two parents: our lived experience and the rich cultural soup we imbibe every day. Had those of us who worked on the Studiocanal opener not seen Cornelia Parker’s exploded shed (aka Cold Dark Matter) then we might not have struck upon the idea of fragmenting light with an installation of glass panels.

All of us as creatives and designers knows that when it comes to an idea there is no such thing as a virgin birth

Perhaps it’s all to do with the degree to which the original work is advanced. Nick Cave, in his brilliant blog The Red Hand Files, addresses the question in the context of music:

“Theft is the engine of progress, and should be encouraged, even celebrated, provided the stolen idea has been advanced in some way. To advance an idea is to steal something from someone and make it so cool and covetable that someone then steals it from you. In this way, modern music progresses, collecting ideas, and mutating and transforming as it goes. But a word of caution, if you steal an idea and demean or diminish it, you are committing a dire crime for which you will pay a terrible price — whatever talents you may have will, in time, abandon you. If you steal, you must honour the action, further the idea, or be damned.”

An unequivocal warning against creative burglary from Mr Cave, though it leaves us no clearer on how those of us who feel we’ve been ripped off should best respond. Coincidentally, around the time of ‘the Amazon heist’, I noticed this tweet from James Watt, one of the founders of upstart beer company Brewdog:

The discount supermarket chain Aldi had created a beer which looked remarkably similar in flavour, profile, design and packaging to Brewdog’s own bestselling Punk IPA. But just a day later Watt posted again on Twitter:

Amazingly, Aldi responded with, what has to be said, a sound creative note:

And then following some swift behind-the-scenes discussion, Watt made this post:

And very soon ALD IPA will be on the shelves of your local supermarket.

There’s much I admire about Brewdog: their commitment to being carbon negative, their capacity to move deftly and at speed to produce one-offs like the brilliant Barnard Castle Eye Test can following the Dominic Cummings debacle, and of course their delicious range of IPAs.

But this genius move, which has something of Aikido about it – harnessing the energy of your aggressor’s blow for your own ends – was brilliant. Instead of embarking on a bitter, recriminatory and expensive legal battle, they’ve rolled with the punch and created something new, positive and probably very tasty.

You have a choice – either sustain the negative energy, or simply absorb the blow and consider whether it could be a creative opportunity in disguise

An act of deliberate plagiarism is a negative one. The plagiarist diminishes themselves by their decision to copy. An opportunity to make something distinctive and to add to the pool of original ideas has been lost. Yet if you are the one whose work has been purloined I think you have a choice – either sustain the negative energy by going head to head with your imitator and commit to a costly battle in which success is uncertain, or simply absorb the blow and consider whether the transgression could be a creative opportunity in disguise.

Which is where I am today. I know that Studiocanal are considering their legal position, but I no longer have any interest in the outcome of the process. For myself and the rest of the team the knowledge that there is an ersatz facsimile of our original ident doesn’t diminish our pride in the project or obscure the memory of that special night out in London. All that remains is to a pour a cold glass of ALD IPA, move on to the next brief and let karma do its thing.

Richard Holman is a freelance creative director who runs courses in creativity and ideas; This article originally appeared on Richard Holman’s blog, richardholman.com/blog