"To live is to war with trolls" -- Ibsen
This week I gave a talk on copyright law at the annual convention of the National Cartoonists Society (always a fun event). My talk included an Eight Minute History of Thievery in Cartooning, recounting some of the colorful disputes over who created what. This post is taken from that talk.
The history of comics is streaked with plagiarism like bacon is streaked with fat.
In fact, the very first comic strip resulted in a huge copyright battle. Richard Outcault, who created the Yellow Kid in 1895, found himself competing with a duplicate Yellow Kid in a rival newspaper:
|dueling Yellow Kids by Outcault (left) and George Luks (right)|
|Virtually identical characters by Dirks (left) and Knerr (right)|
In 1933, Ham Fisher hired a young assistant, Al Capp, to help with his comic strip, Joe Palooka. Capp noticed that one of the characters in the strip, a large bumbling mountain man called Big Leviticus, was popular with readers so Capp quietly developed his own strip about another large bumbling mountain man, Li'l Abner, and sold it to a rival syndicate.
|A strong resemblance: Fisher's Big Leviticus (left) and Capp's Li'l Abner (right)|
As you can tell, the early years of cartooning saw a lot of heated battles involving different kinds of borrowing, copyright infringement and plagiarism. But cartoonists in the early decades never dreamed how sophisticated and lucrative theft could be. In later years, what was once criticized as "theft" came to be renamed "appropriation art" or "repurposing" or "transformative use" or "sampling" or "re-contextualiation." What all of these new categories have in common is that they represent minor, unimaginative art.
The legitimization of this type of borrowing began with pop art. Bill Overgard's panel from his 1961 strip, Steve Roper was copied by Roy Lichtenstein. When reporters questioned Lichtenstein he responded, "What I do is form, whereas the comic strip is not formed in the sense I'm using the word." Overgard replied, "he said he never copies them exactly, [but] he comes pretty close..."
Fast forward a couple of decades and you encounter the fine artist Erró (
But Lichtenstein and Erró are amateurs compared to Richard Prince who shamelessly steals from illustrators, cartoonists and other commercial art. For example, Prince copied this cartoon as a work of fine art...
...which recently sold at auction in 2012 for $812,500:
Once when Prince was sued for copyright infringement, he offered this legal theory for his borrowing, along with his personal opinion of the lawyer who filed the lawsuit:
I hated that lawyer; that lawyer was really an asshole. I just wanted to be like-- my attitude was like, Dude, this is my artwork, and you are a square. You are a fucking square. For me, it's like I wasn't going to be a part of his world, I wasn't going to acknowledge his world. ... Copyright? That's absurd."Finally, no history of theft in cartooning would be complete without mentioning ebay. An excellent example is the following gentleman who, under the name "fosworld," was selling fake Calvin & Hobbes artwork as originals on ebay.
The scam was easy to confirm because the cartoonist, Bill Watterson, had donated those originals to The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at Ohio State University where they reside today. When confronted, the seller continued to sell the fake strips, dodging and weaving and offering various excuses. Complaints to ebay about the seller were slow to get a response; ebay is notorious for ignoring intellectual property rights in situations where ebay might make a quick buck from somebody else's fraud.
Finally the outrage over the Calvin & Hobbes forgeries became hot enough that fosworld quietly shifted to other, less troublesome inventory. To my knowledge none of fosworld's victims ever got their money back. If you encounter one of them, tell them to write fosworld.
Theft in cartooning continues to mutate and evolve as fast as cartooning itself, and the internet is the perfect petri dish. Be careful out there!