On plagiarism and fanfic

Recently, there have been a number of posts on Facebook concerning the “artist” Glenn Brown. I put “artist” in quotes because there are those who are claiming he is anything but that. The current controversy concerning Brown surrounds one of his paintings that recently sold at auction for more than $5 million.

The painting in question can be seen here. When you click through, you’ll see another image next to it that looks strikingly similar. The image on the left is a book cover by legendary artist Chris Foss for Asimov’s Stars Like Dust.” The other image is the one Brown did. There’s little chance that anyone could deny that Brown’s painting is nothing more than a redo of the Foss cover.

If you read the io9 article further, you’ll see that this isn’t an isolated incident where Brown’s concerned. Anthony Roberts sued Brown earlier for copying the cover to Double Star by Heinlein. After the suit was filed, Brown added “After Anthony Roberts” to the title of his painting and he did so as well with his painting that is a blatant ripp-off of Foss’s cover art.

But is that enough? Has Brown made enough changes to art that “inspired” him to make it his own?

In my mind, no. That’s especially true with the painting based on the original Foss work. This wasn’t a case of him taking a piece and changing it enough to make it something new. But that’s not the purpose of today’s post. Although, it is part of the consideration that led me to it.

When I first saw mention of this the other day, one of the Facebook commenters said that what Brown did was nothing more than plagiarism. Foss had worked long and hard to create the original piece and no one should be able to take his work, add some minor lighting changes, etc., to it and then claim it as his own. If that had been all she said, I wouldn’t have had a problem with it. Heck, I even agree with her. But she had to go on and say this is why she hates fanfic. After all, according to her, Jane Austen worked long and hard to create her characters and no one else should ever be able to use them.

Putting aside the fact that Austen’s work is out of copyright — and therefore legally available for folks to do with as they want (if they want to risk the ire of a multitude of Austen fans and English teachers.) — what she says raises all sorts of issues. Under her line of thinking, there could be no Pride, Prejudice and Zombies or other mashups that have appeared over the last few years. There could be no books with Sherlock Holmes in them, either as a major or minor character. All the romantic fantasy based on fairy tales that have appeared from a certain major publishing house over the last ten years would be off-limits. There’s more but you get my drift.

That might or might not be a bad thing, depending on how you look at it. But do we really want to limit authors this way?

I know there are a lot of authors out there who are dead set against fanfic. I happen to agree with them, when the work is still in copyright and the person writing the fanfic takes main characters from a book or series of books and breaks canon with them. But fanfic has its place in writing, just not necessarily in publishing.

For a wonderful discussion about fanfic and filing off the serial numbers to make it your own, check out Kate Paulk’s post over at Mad Genius Club today. She talks about taking something that isn’t your own and changing it enough that it is now something new. Yes, it is inspired by something something else did but it is now yours. If you can do that, you are an artist whether you paint with words or with oils or acrylics.

And that is, to me at least, the key. Have you taken whatever inspired you and changed it enough to make it your own? Pride, Prejudice and Zombies worked because it took characters and setting we are all familiar with and set it all on its ear. We see Lizzie training with blades. Zombies lurk in the shadows and England is fighting for survival against their hordes. Fanfic? Sure. But with a twist that made it something that could stand on its own.

Let’s face it, how many guys — especially teens — would be more willing to read it than they would the original?

Now, I don’t want to see someone taking my work and changing a word here and there or a name and then claiming it as their own. But I know I’m not the first to write about shapechangers in Dallas and I won’t be the last. The key is to take the premise, twist it, mold it and make it your own.

Going back to Brown and his paintings, I don’t think he did that and especially not with the Foss cover. I’m sure there’s a special place in Artist’s Hell for folks like him.


  1. What Brown did could be OK, if he had a license to produce hand-painted copies of the painting. That sort of thing is done, I understand, only when done on black velvet it rarely fetches $5 mil.

    But licensing and rights is for mere mortals. Ethics is not something modern fine art is concerned with. Modern fine art is a bizarre, inbred, grasping beast which places itself above actual art by being anti-art. It purifies art by draining all semblance of art out. Lichtenstein isn’t an improvement on a panel drawn by Kirby; Lichtenstein merely drained the life out of the linework and made fun of the color printing process. It was a professional who designed the Campbell’s soup can label, not ripoff artist Andy Warhol. These early ripoff artists defined fine art as soulless snake-oil for generations to come.

    Um, rant out. 🙂

    1. Eric, you’ve just identified why I do NOT like most modern art. A porcelain toilet is still a toilet if it is sitting in the middle of an exhibit hall in a museum. It isn’t art. Neither is a telephone sitting on a table or a jar of urine or other things best not thought about.

  2. When it comes to Brown, the worst part, to me, are perhaps those who facilitate him. If he had painted that thing and sold it as a copy of the cover, and got paid the kind of sum copies usually fetch – or maybe painted it on commission as a mural on the wall for somebody who was a fan of the original, and maybe got paid paid by the hour or by area or whatever – I wouldn’t have a problem with something like that personally. But that it was taken into an auction and then sold to such a ridiculous sum as original art, or that his copies are accepted into exhibitions as original art, that is criminal. And for that he needs the people who accept his works into galleries, the people who buy and sell his work and the people who promote his work. And especially the jerk or jerks who helped him to get started with this.

  3. Agreed but they are no more going to take responsibility for what is being done than Brown, himself, is. After all, they might be labeled by their “friends” of the right-sort of thinking that they don’t understand “art” or are sell-outs. So, instead, they perpetuate non-art and ripping off the actual artists.

  4. I think the fame accorded Brown is part and parcel of the Western Intellectuals’ ignorance of anything outside their little hermetically sealed enclaves. I keep running into examples of their suddenly “discovering” new and exciting themes that SF chewed most of the flavor out of sometime back in the 1960’s. What, for example, is ‘magical realism’ (with regards to writing) that Bradbury, Sturgeon, and company weren’t doing rather better circa 1955? In his most recent collection of non-fiction, HOOKING UP, Tom Wolfe writes about the autobiography of Jesus that one of the Great Minds of Modern Literature wrote recently … and I can’t help but think that sometime around 1972 (BEHOLD THE MAN was 1969) you couldn’t thrown a stone in an SF store without hitting at least ONE re-imagining of the life of Christ.

    Yet, for these over-schooled pillocks, this is a “new” idea. THE MATRIX struck these morons as new and exciting. I’m not saying it was AWFUL, mind; for a theme that venerable it managed a decent presentation. but NEW?!?! AVATAR is “new”?!?


    Brown isn’t simply a plagiarist. He’s a bad one with scant imagination.

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