Sunday Ramblings, 10/22

I’d considered posting something or another several times this week.

In each instance, I had some topic – usually mundane and generic – that in some way tied into my day.  In each instance, I had some snappy first line that I was sure would attract attention, and – in each instance – my mind went completely blank once I sat down before the computer.

As a result, I’ve got nuthin’.

Oh, I should point out that I’m feeling a heck of a lot better today than I was this time last week.  After a week of being plagued by chest pains and migraines – the things I’ve repeatedly discussed here – and having stress trigger the resurgence of other problems – things that I don’t discuss – I’m happy to just be here.  I say that with emphasis because the migraines I suffered earlier in the week were among the most severe headaches I’ve ever had.  I can’t recall having ever experienced pain of that magnitude.  I don’t have enemies (at least I don’t consider them enemies; what they think of me is conjecture), but even if I did, I would never wish that level of suffering upon them.  I can’t think of anything with which to compare them; any imagery I offer up won’t do the episode justice.  Let’s just say that I’ve been reviewing that day in my mind, trying to recall what I might have done that set this episode in motion.

Although I am not on Twitter, I am fascinated by a page there called For Exposure.  The page is primarily for online artists who have had to deal with people who expect them to work for free.  The title comes from a frequently posted fallacy that in exchange for this so-called “free” work, the recipient will provide exposure to the artist, thus generating subsequent, real sales.  In other words, “I don’t expect to pay, but those who come after me, will do so gladly.”  Logically, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s often fun reading the resulting arguments.

The common defense is that an artist doesn’t actually own his/her art; it’s simply a collection of lines that someone would have eventually assembled in a specific format.  The Mona Lisa?  Why that’s just a face of a woman; unless you have her permission to replicate her likeness, then who’s to say that Da Vinci really “owns” it?  It’s like the old argument on writing: Let a room full of monkeys with typewriters peck long enough, eventually one would produce something of the quality of Shakespeare.  Therefore, creativity is actually a randomness that simply exists – no one individual can truly own it.

Uh, right.

Years ago, I entered an advertising contest at the retail store I worked.  The company was a national chain that technically no longer exists.  I mean, it does, but it is currently kind of Frankenstein’s Monster, in the sense that other companies were later bought and folded into the main brand; what exists today is an entirely new entity.  The issue was pretty simple: Design an ad for company recruitment.  Winners would see their ad used in future promotions, get their names publicized, and there was a small financial prize – I forget how much – but it’s not like you could have retired on it.  Anyway, I prepared a basic copy using a popular home publishing application, that humorously touted the benefits for working in the company.  I made four variations of the same theme, and while each featured different artwork and references, the idea in each was identical.  This was long before Photoshop or Adobe were common; it would have been easier for me to have just drawn everything out in long-hand, to be honest.  But it was mine, and I was proud.

I submitted the four copies to my store manager, who assured me that she would send them to corporate.  I was thrilled – I hadn’t considered a career in advertising, but at the time, it seemed like something I might want to get into, especially once I won this contest.  Notice how I just knew that I would win – I was cocky, sure, but I was also extremely confident of my submission.  Ah, to be that certain of anything . . .

Anyway, after about six weeks and no response, I asked about the contest.  I knew when the closing date was, and it had passed.  But I thought I would have at least gotten some feedback on my designs.  By this point, I didn’t care if I won; I was curious as to what corporate thought about them.  I brought the subject up with my store manager, and her wide-eyed expression should have told me everything I needed to know, but I missed the cues.  A day later, she came back and said that they must have been lost in transit, adding that if I could provide another set, she’d see to it that they would reach corporate before the end of that week.

Like I said, I missed the cues.

A week later, I was given the news: The CEO (!) liked my ideas and said they showed promise, but alas, someone else won the competition.  I asked for a copy of the note from the CEO – this was before e-mail – because I thought that such a comment would be something nice to remember years later, but none was ever produced.  I shrugged it off and went back to my duties, believing the situation concluded.

Two weeks later, the manager produced stacks of recruitment materials that she proudly claimed she’d submitted for the contest.  She’d decided to use them to generate applications for the upcoming holiday season.  No big deal, right?  They were all text, and resembled what most Craigslist ads look like today.  I put them out on display for prospective applicants, except . . .

No way.  You’ve got to be shitting me . . .

She had copied my contest submission verbatim, minus the artwork.  This had been her submission, remember, and in that moment I realized that the “praise” from the CEO was utter bullshit, and that my submissions never reached corporate.  I understood now why she gave me a “deer-in-the-headlights” look when I asked about the contest, and why things had been awkward until I’d stopped asking about it.

Simply put, she stole my work.  Pure, unmitigated plagiarism, I realized.

I was devastated – shocked beyond words.  When I collected myself and confronted her about it, she brazenly tossed her nose into the air and declared – something I will never forget:

“You don’t own words.  I did nothing wrong.”

Think about that statement for a minute.

This was a college educated woman, with a business degree, no less, who defiantly asserted that plagiarism was not wrong.  This was someone who, in two sentences, dismissed hours of work that I had done and negating any potential reward for it.  This was someone who felt it totally acceptable that she benefit from work she had not even conceived (let alone, done), at the expense of the person who actually did it.

There are two ways to commit plagiarism, or so I tell my students.  The first is accidental , and it involves failing to credit a source or mis-crediting it.  It’s usually due to not paying attention to what you’re doing.  I had a professor once confess that he made up a citation in his book because he couldn’t remember where he’d gotten it.

(“It sounded like something Johnson would have said,” he told me, so he listed that book as the source of the quote.  He had no problem with it because he said no one ever read the book.  I read the book – and I can understand why he felt no one else would read it.)

But the other way – the more common way – is to simply refuse accreditation and to either claim authorship outright, or to suggest to your audience that you’re the author.  That’s what happened here.  And there she stood, proud as hell that she’d done it.

I was so angry, that I physically shook.  I later looked into the possibility of a legal response – at the very least, I wanted to make a point – but I didn’t have that month’s car note, so a lawyer at that point in my life was more fantasy than anything else.  I stayed with that store for another year before mounting drama with a second manager led to health issues that forced me to quit.  Ironically, on my last day, the new manager had located some of the stolen recruitment flyers and put them up out on the sales floor.  Whether this was done to further aggravate me or not, I can’t say.  By that point, I didn’t care anymore, anyway.  Such is life, as my father would have said.

In the years since, I’ve done artwork for various projects I’ve done online, and I’ve seen some of them stolen by others for one reason or another.  The end result is that I rarely post art online anymore, and I don’t enter contests where there’s a middleman to process submissions.  The offending manager left the store midway through my tenure there; our paths crossed on two subsequent occasions, the last of which was a good long while ago.

The Twitter site is often funny, but it reminds me that no idea, regardless of how it is communicated, is ever really safe from this sort of abuse.  That someone will try to profit from it at your expense, and that there are people who see nothing wrong with this – in fact, you’re the villain for calling them out.

Maybe that explains why, at least culturally, we’re in the middle of a creativity drought.

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