Is Ripping Off Someone’s Idea a Copyright Violation? Where Do You Stand on Idea Appropriation?

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery-celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from-it’s where you take them to.”

-Jim Jarmusch

There’s a big debate going on today regarding the latest music video by Director Keith Schofield (above), Charlotte Gainsbourg’s “Heaven Can Wait” (featuring Beck). The video would seem to clearly rip off and steal ideas from amateur photographers including Flickr user William Hundley. The video above, for instance, features a skateboard sitting on four cheeseburgers, looking almost identical to a similar popular photograph which had been published previously by Hundley on Flickr.

Hundley’s posted about this apparent rip off in his flickrstream in a post entitled Someone is using my ideas… Hundley was tipped off to this rip off by Merkely who also tipped me off to it.

I’m not a lawyer and personally don’t know enough about copyright law to know if Schofield has any legal liability over this theft or not. The image is not the same, clearly, but it would be inconceivable to me that Schofield could have thought up the idea without first viewing Hundley’s original photograph. But is idea appropriation an actual crime? Is there technically any liability? I have no idea, but it’s an interesting debate and maybe someone who knows the law better than I do could chime in.

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19 comments on “Is Ripping Off Someone’s Idea a Copyright Violation? Where Do You Stand on Idea Appropriation?
  1. What’s next people complaining that someone stole their lighting setup? I take a lot of standard issue corporate head shots, did I steal someones idea? Totally, I was not the first person to shoot a head shot. This is just silly.

  2. Automatt says:

    I’ve seen people use an actual /photo/ copied from someone else on Flickr in a music video and claim that it was ‘fair use’ — I believe it was Lane Hartwell’s photo — So using the idea of the photo should probably be okay by that standard, right?

  3. Thomas Hawk says:

    Matt, in that case I believe the video was a parody video and I think parody is held to a much different standard than non-parody. I think the work was also pretty transformative. I’m not a lawyer though and I don’t know whatever ever became of that case. Jason Schultz who is a lawyer blogged on it here though: http://lawgeek.typepad.com/lawgeek/2007/12/copyright-fair.html. I’d be interested in hearing what Schultz thought of this case.

  4. Rob-L says:

    I don’t know what the law is, but what I do know is this; that is one of the shittiest songs I’ve ever heard.

  5. Griffon says:

    Just a nit pick but it’s important. Infringement is not theft and should not be stated as such (not that copying a shot is infringment, or an idea in fact… otherwise Amisel Adams could have had a healthy income suing all the people trying to recreate his shots..). That portrial, infringement as theft, is MPAA thing and it drives me nuts. And is totally wrong.

  6. JulieB says:

    INAL (I am not a lawyer, and I do not play one on TV), but ideas cannot be copyrighted. Neither can plots. Holy cow, there would be no romance novels! Boy gets girl – wait, that’s copyrighted! But when you get into specifics, it gets murky, IMO.

    Hundley’s best bet is to contact a lawyer versed in IP law. It’s a specialty, and it’s important to consult someone with that sort of credentials. The guy who draws up your will may be a fine attorney, but it’s like asking your GP to do heart surgery. You don’t do it unless she’s a qualified heart surgeon.

  7. JR says:

    As far as I know doesn’t it require the product to be able to replace the original work? That’s why using other peoples music in let’s say a hip hop songs background mixed in doesn’t constitute a violation. The work is different and cannot compete with the original.

  8. I haven’t seen the pictures or video to be able to make any comparisons but the whole ‘ripping off ideas’ concept seems pretty silly. Does anybody remember when Orson Scott Card ripped J.K. Rowling apart when she was crying about the H.P. Lexicon? Granted what he’s talking about is books and not visual but the argument is the same.

    http://www.linearpublishing.com/RhinoStory.html

    If Hundley went to court and by some small chance proved his case and won, the end result would be completely paralyzing to the artists and content creators down everywhere (see TH’s J.J. quote above and that about explains it all).

    What JR is talking about is ‘derivative work’ and that is protected under fair use – but I’m no lawyer either

  9. harvardlawyer says:

    “I’m not a lawyer and personally don’t know enough about copyright law to know if Schofield has any legal liability over this theft or not.”

    In other words, you’re an uniformed piece of shit, and you don’t know a goddamned thing. So shut your fucking pie hole, you big asshole. Blog shitheads like you need to shut the fuck up. You think you’re big shit, but you’re just another jackass. Eat shit and die. And suck off your camera lens you cocksucking motherffucker.

  10. hpc says:

    Great stylish blog and wonderful images. I teach on a few photography holidays around the world and I will definitely be recommending this blog to my students.

  11. Roger Krueger says:

    Stealing someone’s idea is like stealing someone’s wife: it’s a shitty thing to do, but it’s not against the law, expecially not copyright law.

  12. Naz says:

    There’s a lot of stuff in the video that copies from elsewhere – even someone in a spongebob outfit, how on earth can you get outraged about that ?.
    In any case what “idea” is involved in a skateboard resting on cheese burgers ?!! – I really don’t get it don’t get it, lot’s of things in my kitchen get placed on top of old food, I don’t claim that makes me a creative genius.

  13. Cory says:

    I posted this on flickr as well:

    Here’s another ripoff from the video.

    At the 1:43 mark, there’s an astronaut with pancakes for a head.

    So I went to google images, and typed in: pancakes for a head
    and after about 3 pages, I found this image:
    http://www.disqueprimeur.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/cosmo_pancakes1.jpg

    from this page:
    http://www.disqueprimeur.com/tag/nerd/

    This photo was uploaded June 15th 2009, and according to wikipedia, the video for ‘Heaven Can Wait;’ was released Nov 19th 2009, plenty of time to rip off this photo too!
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IRM_%28album%29

    Who is this director Keith Schofield ripping off ideas and passing them off like it’s his own.

  14. Miral says:

    There is no way to measure where we got our ideas and what we “thought” up on our own. We are the sum of everything we experience and copyright law is the bane of our existence. Yet we create laws to perhaps protect ourselves from those who “exploit” that very idea. While everyone is selfish, there are degrees. There are those that unwittingly “borrow” or are “inspired” by ideas and those that “purposefully” take from the thinkers. But, in my experience, “thinkers” and “doers” are two completely different persons, and the world is better for it. Who knows how many great ideas I’ve had that I’ve never gotten around to implementing…so I say BRAVO to those to make that “idea” into SOMETHING. Now whether or not they give credit…is perhaps due to the fact that admitting to said “borrowing” would in this current system leave the borrower vulnerable to lawsuits and perhaps why everyone is so guarded and so defensive on this very issue. A very complicated issue but with a fundamentally simple point at it’s core. Why are humans such dicks? Can’t we all just pat each other on the back and cheerlead each other on? Selfishness is the issue at hand and I could care less.

  15. app103 says:

    100 photographers can line up and photograph the same thing, and you’d have 100 different photos, 100 different perspectives, 100 versions of that subject as seen through 100 different eyes.

    Would 99 of them be copies and only the first be a valid original? Would the other 99 be infringing on the rights of the first that photographed it?

    If I had the idea to photograph my dinner it doesn’t mean other people can’t photograph their dinner, even if they are eating the same food and happen to have the same dinnerware as I own.

    They can’t use my photo of my dinner without my permission, nor can they claim their photo of their dinner is the original I took.

    You can not copyright an idea. You can only copyright the actual works that are a result of that idea.

    Unless either of the following was done, then there is no violation:

    * The original image was used in the video, without permission.
    * The image used was not the original, but is being intentionally and falsely claimed to be the original.

  16. Jono says:

    I think that photographers are on very shaky ground criticising stuff like this. I am in the habit of taking shots of sculptures and statues and putting the result on my Flickr page – not my creative idea, but a re-lit, reconsidered interpretation of the original from my own perspective. TH himself has numerous shots of works of art not created by himself. Are we passing them off as our own, or merely appreciating the original and re-interpreting it?

    That said, I will always try to give credit to the creator of the original piece, which must be key.

  17. One important thing to keep in mind is, that with almost 7 billion people on this planet, sometimes what looks like a rip-off at first, does not necessarily have to be one.

    A few years ago I had what I thought was a brilliant idea for a name for an internet forum site. I googled it and found no results so I thought “yay, I just found one hell of an original name for my project”. I already had the website registered when only three weeks later the name was used in a new TV episode of The Simpsons. I really don’t think that they somehow managed to steal that idea from me, I just think that sometimes even the most original idea can be had by two different people from totally different places in the world.

    Now for the actualy rip-off question:
    I would never intentionally steal another photographers idea if it is something that looks even remotely unique. If I like an idea sooo much that I really really want to do something similar myself, I simply contact the guy or gal that I was inspired by, and ask them if they are OK with me reproducing their idea, and if they are and I do, I also give them credit for it. This happens about once every five years or so. I can only remember two times – one of which was a painting that I redid as a photograph. Though even sometimes – seldom, but sometimes – I let myself be inspired by others, I NEVER simply copy a motif 1:1. On the other hand, I have seen some of my work replicated many times, sometimes with manic gusto. But honestly: I really don’t mind. I just take it as a compliment. :) What really pisses me off though, is people actually stealing my images and using them commercially without authorization or claiming them as their own work. That is usually a lawyer call for me.

    I don’t think “stealing” ideas is a crime though, especially when you talk to the people that inspire you and give them credit in your work. But not having ANY own original ideas, THAT is a crime.

    I think photography as a medium is a very special grey area when it comes to intellectual property rights, because a photograph can be original in so many ways… by its motif, the story it tells, by its color scheme and even by the emotions that it carries. If you image-google the Brooklyn Bridge, you will find hundreds of photographs that look almost identical, but nobody would complain about that. It’s the best shot at the best angle that people will open, which is not necessarily the first one that was taken…

    A few years ago a Brazillian photo-designers group “Platinum FMD” did a series of shots where they replaced flames with liquid (e.g. a Zippo lighter with a flame made of water) which was so fantastic, that every photographer that knew his way around Photoshop had to try this out themselves. So their very unique and creative idea got ripped off thousands of times. But nobody complained. And why? Because this campaign was so popular, that everybody knew who originally came up with it, and considered those experiments by amateurs an hommage to Platinum FMD.

    So if amateurs “steal” ideas from professionals, (almost) nobody complains. But if a professional photographer steals ideas from (Flickr) amateurs, people make a fuss about it. Why? Becaus of the “professional”. If you call yourself a professional photographer, and make a living out of it, you SHOULD be able to come up with creative unique ideas on your own. Though being a “professional” these days only means that you make money with it, and if you only want to make money, why not steal? Because you WILL make money from ripping off good ideas – professionally. You might even make a fortune. And so far there is no legal consequence for ripping off motif ideas. Really, there isn’t. The one consequence you are facing is that people WILL find out, call you an asshole and hate you for it.

    Me, I just prefer not to be an asshole, even if it means that I can’t take photos of a skateboard on burgers.