Forgive us our ‘plagiarism’

The Nation’s Prayer, created for the England World Cup squad by Asbury & Asbury, proved remarkably ineffective. But after appearing in The Sun and elsewhere, it became a case study in the merits of sharing openly versus protecting intellectual property

The Nation’s Prayer, created for the England World Cup squad by Asbury & Asbury, proved remarkably ineffective. But after appearing in The Sun and elsewhere, it became a case study in the merits of sharing openly versus protecting intellectual property.

If there’s a wooden spoon in the DBA Design Effectiveness Awards, the Nation’s Prayer would have to be a contender. As featured on Creative Review, the prayer is a version of the Lord’s Prayer adapted for the England squad and released as a prayer card. But while it had zero impact on England’s chances, the project took on a life of its own, in a story that ended with a Sun journalist in Brazil dressing as a vicar and reading the prayer to a congregation of England fans (see above) – an episode that was written up in The Sun, along with an uncredited reproduction of the poem.

 

 

To recap a haphazard sequence of events, the prayer card was launched via our Asbury & Asbury blog, followed by coverage here on Creative Review, some (credited) mentions on the Guardian, Independent and Telegraph World Cup blogs, and some friendly RT-ing on Twitter. But then things began to spin out of control. Two accounts with 700,000 followers each – @TSBible and @BBCSporf – posted the image of the prayer card without credit or context, in each case attracting about 5,000 retweets. Both ignored friendly requests to follow up with a link or credit. One account called @englandzone even claimed the prayer as their own. They later apologised, although they never took down the post.

 

 

All this came about partly because of our own mistake – not including a credit on the images we released. As soon as the images become divorced from their context, as inevitably happens when something goes viral, you leave yourself vulnerable to uncredited sharing – we won’t be the first Creative Review readers to have had this happen to them.

This can be entirely innocent – not everyone has the time or inclination to trace the source when sharing something. But when it’s a big account like @TSBible and @BBCSporf, there’s surely a responsibility to take a moment to trace the source. Having looked at their accounts more closely (along with other big accounts like @ThePoke), they seem to make a habit of sharing potentially ‘viral’ stuff without crediting – it’s pretty much the business model.

We only became aware The Sun had picked up on it after the event. Their journalist made a video of himself reading a (slightly garbled) version of the prayer, which was written up at length in the print edition. In a bitter irony, I would share the video but can’t because it’s stuck behind the Sun’s paywall.

Once something like this happens, there are a number of possible reactions: hurl abuse via social media, attempt to get legal via emails and phone calls, or try to work out some kind of positive resolution. I was initially tempted by the first approach, particularly as I have a moral objection to The Sun even existing, following their Hillsborough reporting and the two decades it took them to apologise. If they’d asked in advance to reproduce the poem, I’d have had to say no for that reason.

That said, the video is fun (albeit pushing an irreverent idea further in the ‘outright blasphemous’ direction). Once it was out there, it struck me as churlish to ask for it to be taken down. So I ended up tweeting the journalist involved and asking for a credit to be added to the online story and an appropriate donation, in lieu of payment, to be made to a football charity called Street League. This elicited no response until a friend advised me to email the Managing Editor of The Sun. I received a prompt reply, promising to add the credit and make a donation of £750 (higher than the amount I had suggested). The reply stopped short of apologising, but was an admirable response otherwise.

 

 

I tried and failed to get an explanation from The Sun as to why these things happen. A charitable interpretation is that, once something ‘goes viral’, people feel it’s in the public domain and up for grabs – it may not have occurred to the journalist that there might be an actual writer out there who needed crediting. More realistically, he may have been aware of it and chose not to enquire in case the writer either refused, demanded unreasonable payment, or took so long to reply that he missed his deadline.

In future, we’ll be more likely to include credits as part of images we release, but only if it seems necessary. It strikes me as paranoid to include one on every image, and not aesthetically appealing when showing off creative work.

There’s also part of me that feels what happened to The Nation’s Prayer is entirely appropriate. Although we made it available as a prayer card (priced at 66p), it was never really a commercial venture and more a continuation of a tradition (we’ve been writing versions since 2010). As noted each time we’ve published it, the prayer is a variation on The Bus Driver’s Prayer, of unknown origin, but popularised by Ian Dury, and turned into a poster by Frith Kerr (as part of an exhibition of London-themed posters for the 2009 London Design Festival).

 

The writer of the Bus Driver’s version is long forgotten, and it happened before the days of Google and social media, so it’s not as easy to dig back to the source. It’s become the work of that most prolific of all writers – ‘Trad. Anon.’

Some might argue the very idea of insisting on ‘credit’ is questionable when our idea is a version of an older idea. But I’ve never bought the ‘there’s no such thing as an original idea’ argument – a lazy bit of pseudo-postmodernism that is usually trotted out to justify blatant plagiarism. To say that every idea has its influences and precursors is not the same as saying there are no original ideas. The real argument isn’t about whether ideas have their influences (all ideas do), but whether you credit those influences generously and clearly.

But it’s undeniable that folk culture in general pays little attention to attribution, whatever the protestations of writers and designers – and this story could be seen as a small example of that. Maybe it’s unreasonable to expect ownership of something you’ve called ‘The Nation’s Prayer’. Let the nation have it. Given recent results, they’re welcome to it.

We have no idea why you would want a prayer card now, but they are available from asburyandasbury.tictail.com. More of Asbury & Asbury’s work at asburyandasbury.typepad.com

 

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