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  • Writer's pictureAndrew McIlroy

Artists, copycats and other villains: The pursuit of authenticity in contemporary art

To many artists, sculptors, poets, writers and thinkers, this time of Christmas is rich in inspiration. But it is inevitably a time of reflection and self-(re)evaluation. “Christmas gives us”, wrote David Cameron “the opportunity to pause and reflect on the important things around us - a time when we can look back on the year that has passed and prepare for the year ahead”.

Wrestling with the year yet done can prove difficult enough, but for an artist the prospect of a fresh start is inviting; each New Year promising to be more monumental than the last.

Never far from mind in this is the artist’s desire in no small part to satisfy society’s perennial appetite for new and original ideas. And whilst many creative decisions are made intuitively, just as many are no doubt made consciously; building upon the ideas of those that have come before.

This begs the question, does originality come from the unconscious, from somewhere within ourselves, or are the ideas borrowed from elsewhere? And if the latter is true, is there any room left to claim the mantel of authenticity?

The answer is yes and no. Yes, there are original ways to express thoughts, ideas, concepts and philosophies. And no, the actual subject upon which these thought, ideas, concepts and philosophies are based are not original. There is no such thing as originality, just authenticity. But controversy in the art world is its lifeblood and allegations of plagiarism are not infrequent or without merit.

Nothing to see here - Sam Leach & the Wynne Prize Controversy

In 2010, Melbourne artist Sam Leach found himself (perhaps consciously) at the heart of a maelstrom. In this year, Leach won both the Archibald for his portrait of Tim Minchin, and the Wynne Prize with his landscape painting Proposal for Landscaped Cosmos. However, the “Wynne-winning work was not all it seemed - or perhaps a lot more than it seemed”, wrote The Sydney Morning Herald’s Gabrielle Coslovich at the time.

It emerged to the blithe embarrassment of the judges that Leach’s painting was an almost exact replica of the 17th Century Dutch master Adam Pynacker’s 1668 painting Boatmen Moored on a Lake Shore. Not only that, Leach had astonishingly not acknowledged his source. Critics argued that had Leach submitted his work for academic assessment without attribution, he would have been accused of plagiarism and in the least of acting unethically.

Sam Leach, Proposal for Landscaped Cosmos 2010 (left) and Adam Pynacker, Boatmen Moored on a Lake Shore 1668 (right)

But was Leach’s sin all that grave? Perhaps not. Throughout history artists have quoted and appropriated. Coslovich points out that Australian landscape painter Frederick McCubbin amongst others turned to Turner, Constable and Corot and other European masters for inspiration and straight-out reference. Such a tendency was often a device used to death it could be said by postmodern artists. Leach to his credit is unapologetic, citing his deliberate appropriation with some of his own touches as a good basis for ‘having the discussion’.

"There are some key differences there. Quite clearly I’m quoting that original work … I’m not sort of ashamed or worried about it."

Notwithstanding, Leach's painting being truly representative of the Australian landscape stretches credulity.

Copyright, Plagiarism, and Original Ideas

Originality is a key value of art education, but at the same time, replication is promoted as just as important. Understanding when borrowing the work of others is appropriate and when it’s not is an important skill for artists and a central plank of art school syllabuses.

However, we live in a world flooded with images so it appears the discussion of building on previous bodies of work is often skipped over; most probably it seems to skip over the vexed issue of copyright violation – from both a legal and ethical viewpoint.

Nonetheless, artists from all disciplines complain about and struggle with copyright law.


Copyright law has existed since the invention of the printing press. The laws have changed and expanded over time, but still have the same primary goal: to protect the rights of the artist. Copyright law does this by prohibiting the copying of an artist’s work. Copyright infringement occurs when someone’s work is used without their permission or without giving them compensation. There is a big exception to this, though – fair use.

Fair Use

Fair use is a key part of copyright law that allows the use of copyrighted material, however plagiarism is not.

Fair use also recognises that the repurposing of work and images is a key way that artists build meaning. This type of borrowing and building on previous work has a long history and was integral to movements like Dada and Pop Art that asked important questions about the meaning of art and popular culture. It is even more prevalent today with our unprecedented access to digital images.


Plagiarism, or using someone’s work without giving them credit, is to me the issue more often than not, and not copyright infringement. This is a moral issue. However, the key point of difference relies upon taking someone’s work and claiming it as yours.

Copying images is a good thing. It is an important part of the conversation that art creates. It does not matter whether it is done consciously or otherwise. It does matter though to acknowledge it.

Whether copyright law can make any practical difference in the life of an artist living and working today in Australia has been dealt with by the Federal Government, albeit with limited success.

Federal Government introduces Resale Royalty Rights Scheme for visual artists

With the passing of the Federal Government’s Resale Royalty Right for Visual Artists Act 2009, visual artists won from 9 June 2010 a right to receive a five per cent royalty payment on secondary sales of their works over $1,000, for the duration of copyright in that work (the life of the artist plus 70 years). Although the scheme has already commenced, there is still some way to go before benefits under the scheme start flowing to artists.

No doubt this attempt to protect the rights of the artist will only go so far. It seems there will always be room for controversy, particularly where the old is presented again as new.

A summary of the Resale Royalty Rights Scheme for visual artists living in Australia by Timothy Creek of Davies Collison Cave Lawyers can be viewed here.

Main Photo: Artist Sam Leach in 2010, Sydney Morning Herald

Andrew McIlroy is a visual artist, living and working in Melbourne Australia

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