When Does Influence Become Plagiarism?


In the latest of “Bitch Stole My Look”: a Hungarian woman named Angel Barta has come forth claiming that Marc Jacobs, former creative director of Louis Vuitton, has stolen all of her ideas for his clothes and campaigns.

Here’s Angel Barta’s blog, in which she details how and why Marc Jacobs has been swindling her for years. Yet in all of her blog’s absurdity — “Jacobs wants to hide me and the fact that he has been using MY ideas from the fashion industry. Since he discovered that my uniques style sells well, he plans to carry on hiding me and stealing my ideas as long as possible.” — it does raise an interesting question: that of influence and how we trace it or find proof of it. Because while Barta’s claims are, at the very least, far-fetched, there have still been copious instances of brands conspicuously influenced by other artists or designers. There’s the blatant Barbara Kruger-influenced Supreme logo and Jeremy Scott’s line that looked glaringly similar to Jim Phillips’ artwork. And while influence is certainly miles away from plagiarism, the line dividing the two is a murky one and, as such, deserves examination.

In a letter to his daughter, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote,

A good style simply doesn’t form unless you absorb half a dozen top-flight authors every year. Or rather it forms but instead of being a subconscious amalgam of all that you have admired, it is simply a reflection of the last writer you have read, a watered-down journalese.

To succeed, Fitzgerald suggests, you must envelop yourself in a multitude of influences, for if you only draw inspiration from one place it will be shamefully obvious. What Barta seems to be claiming is that Jacobs adheres to the latter; that he is only taking inspiration and ideas from her. One of Barta’s many pieces of evidence:

A piece of art that’s influenced correctly, Fitzgerald suggests, is one that carries no trace or traces of another artist. And it’s possible to see this type of seamless influence in Hemingway, who obviously drew inspiration from writer Ronald Firbank, but did so in such a way that the relationship between the two writers’ works was “more than a connection…an absorption.”

However there’s also no saying that a work devoid of another artist’s hand is a perfectly influenced work of art either. As Clive James explains, “For all we know, the principle influence other writers had on Fitzgerald lay in the effort he took to avoid echoing their rhythm and tone.” Rather than absorbing himself in myriad writers and producing traceless works, perhaps Fitzgerald was intent only on making certain that his art contained no trace of another artist, and so focused on just that.

There are also some artists who seem to have simply evaded influence, such as those who strike us as the type who were born with the talent they possess. For instance, “Where did Keats get it from?” James pointedly asks. “Keats’s touch and tone (we notice his excesses because they are his, not because they are borrowed) had always been fully formed.” And then there are those singular artists who seemed to have started it all; pioneering all influences and influencers: “It can be argued–indeed, it is hard to argue otherwise–that ever since Shakespeare, every writer in English literature has had to devote a huge effort to not aping him.”

It’s impossible to say for sure where Marc Jacobs draws his influence, or whether his work is as authentic as he claims it is. All we can say for sure is that it’s not only fair to take ideas and inspiration from others, it’s necessary for the survival of art. How else would we have been blessed with, say, James Brown’s music had he not been influenced by the blues and jazz that came before him? James Brown was the embodiment of the counter-blues narrative – an unmistakable truth in light of his titles like “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

As humans, we take ideas, information, and insight from others every second of our waking days, and more often than not, this process is subconscious. For this reason, we have no authority to claim the right and wrong ways of drawing influence from others; all we can do is observe, and take note. And it’s worth noting that both Hemingway and Fitzgerald were influenced by Tolstoy. Hemingway “took on board every technique that Tolstoy ever devised,” except he never took on Tolstoy’s themes when they weren’t true to him: “He could never imagine himself as a weak [man], and the idea of a strong man weakened by an emotional dependency was not within his imaginative compass.” Whereas Fitzgerald had no qualms about taking Tolstoy’s themes. And while there’s no clear answer as to why, Hemingway’s approach, when compared to Fitzgerald’s, just seems more genuine — and all the more so when you consider the fact that Fitzgerald’s writing never came close to anything Tolstoy ever wrote.