The fine line between plagiarism and inspiration

The issue of plagiarism vs. inspiration is not a new topic, it has been with us for years and is the fundamental basis of copyright and IP, but it is an increasingly important consideration for us in the visualisation field.

This came up at my data visualisation training event in Washington DC last week. I’m not going to focus on the specific case that was being discussed because I don’t want to put the attention unnecessarily on the person in question but I think it is an issue worth exploring and discussing, because I’m not sure what the right call is.

Recently, Alberto Cairo wrote a great piece about this matter in relation to an information graphic published in the newspaper ‘O Estado De S.Paulo’ and then allegedly copied a few days later and published in ‘La Stampa’.

In information graphics, with its greater scope for inclusion of illustrations and non-visualisation elements, there is arguably a broader range of potential creative solutions than there are with visualisation. So when you see the same thing twice, there is something more inherently blatant, especially when there are no acknowledgements, as in the example below where the New York Time’s piece is almost exactly repeated in the Danish Berlingske publication.

Furthermore, during the judging process at Malofiej 20, there were a number of examples where you could clearly see a large amount of design reference to other pieces (some present in the awards contest, others not) but without any acknowledgement. Some, like the above were almost straight copies and only with the intervention of those who had seen previous, similar works were we able to root out the offending pieces from the medal reckoning.

Returning specifically to data visualisation. As new and innovative ways of representing data are conceived and as the field expands more and more in terms of participation, there will naturally be a great deal of inspiration going on. As people see new methods being adopted, allowing them an escape route away from the ubiquity of the bar and pie charts, there is a risk that some of this inspiration could be perceived as plagiarism.

The first thing, of course, is to consider including an acknowledgement and this will largely take the sting out of any potential situation and may even be seen be the originator of that method as a positive recognition.

But for how long should we need to maintain these acknowledgements? Where is the line drawn after which it is fine to just go ahead and pursue a method that was once rare but now is increasingly common?

Let’s take an extreme example. It is generally accepted that William Playfair was the first to conceive and utilise the bar chart, but how many of us acknowledge Playfair in our work whenever we use the dashboard. None of us, of course we don’t.

Yet, if I churned out a piece today that drew inspiration from the OECD Better Life Index’s floral design, a work that has only been around for the past year, I would and should acknowledge those who were behind it.

But what about those in-between? The Treemap? The Streamgraph?

What are the most appropriate and sustainable guidelines for this particular branch of design ethics that we can all agree on and practice. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below…


jerome cukierMay 22nd, 2012 at 5:35 pm

Hey Andy.
In visualization, it’s probably easier to paraphrase than to plagiarize. In your 2 first examples the copycat copied not so much the technique, but the actual design and aesthetic choices. I find it disturbing that a designer would do that since it’s their job to come up with such good choices to begin with. However copying the principle of a graph should be treated with more leniency, especially considering that most chart revolutions are born in academia with hopes that they will be found useful by practitioners

BenMay 22nd, 2012 at 11:53 pm

Hi Andy – Worth noting that floral design for data visualisation was done AND published in academic lit. around 10 years (I’ll chase down link), something I’m sure the OECD creators were aware of. That said, I would not see that they need to acknowledge that work much like we don’t need to acknowledge Playfair etc.

Agree with Jerome, that we are not exactly standing on the shoulders of giants….more surfing on crowd of midgets, that chart revolutions are born in academia or quasi-academia (e.g. applied R&D labs).

BenMay 23rd, 2012 at 1:00 am

Here is the published article. People Garden by Rebecca Xiong and Judith Donath

Moritz StefanerMay 23rd, 2012 at 8:42 am

Great post Andy, quite an important and complicated issue. I have a similar position as you, and would like to add that you lose very little when crediting inspiration, so why not be generous with it. Concerning the oecd flowers, I was aware of tge People Garden when designing the site, and they were an important formal inspiration. (BTW I also credited donath/xiong this way in my eyeo talk last year.) But, functionally, they were quite different, so I believe we added enough creative achievement to make this an original solution. Hope that makes sense!

NigelMay 23rd, 2012 at 9:39 am

Good post Andy. Agree it is often a (very) fine line between inspiration and plagiarism within information graphics, and as Moritz states a comlicated issue. Its much easier nowadays to gather inspiration (?) from the internet than it ever was before. How often have I heard “here is what I found on the web, copy/do something similar/base it on”…Credit where credit is due – no problem

thomasMay 23rd, 2012 at 11:48 am

“Kilde” is Danish for source, and in the example from Berlingske it states: Kilde/NYT.COM below the picture.

Andy KirkMay 23rd, 2012 at 12:05 pm

Thanks for all comments people, so far. Interesting thoughts.

Thomas, thanks also for pointing that out, its certainly better than nothing but I still think in this case the piece is so close to the original, almost an exact replica, that sourcing the NYT is insufficient acknowledgement.