Bill Day recycling stirs talk of plagiarism in editorial cartoons

The Daily Cartoonist | That Cartoon Critic | Matt Bors
Bill Day used another illustrator’s work without attribution in a recent cartoon, Alan Gardner writes. Videogame developer Zack Fowler’s image of a rifle landed in a Day cartoon about the power of the NRA.


Daryl Cagle syndicates Day’s work, and recently completed a crowdfunding campaign to support Day for a year. “I don’t see any plagiarism there,” he tells Poynter in an email. Day “mistook the rendering for an actual photograph of a real assault rifle,” Cagle writes.

Bill’s cartoon added a sufficient and different editorial comment to Fowler’s image such that it did not constitute copyright infringement, but it was rude to alter another artist’s work without acknowledgment, and something I didn’t think was appropriate, so I asked Bill to take it down as soon as I became aware of it and I apologized to the gun’s artist, on Bill’s behalf.


Gardner calls Day’s use of the gun plagiarism. I’m not sure that’s exactly the right word. Unauthorized interpolation? Ham-fisted aggregation? Media-blogger-baiting transgression? Whatever it is, it seems like a lesser light to shine on Day’s work.

A Tumblr called The Cartoon Critic has assembled a dossier of Day cartoons that reuse images. Take, for example, the Case of the Elephant’s Butt: “How many times can you use an elephant’s ass to make a political point?” the Critic writes. “At least 6 apparently.”

One of the cartoons on the fundraising campaign for Day is recycled, Gardner says in a different blog post.

Cagle said his syndicate has never gotten a complaint about Day’s recycling from editors. “Revising old works can be lazy or clever, depending on how it is done,” he writes.

It would be a problem if editors complained or if readers noticed and didn’t like what they saw. With competing editorial cartoonists circling and smelling Bill’s blood in the water, I think it would be a good time for Bill to give up riffing on his old cartoons, and I’ve told him that.

But Matt Bors says debating such issues is healthy for cartooning: “Cartoonists are sometimes loathe to publicize anything that shines a negative light on our dwindling field,” he writes. “But if we want negative stories to stop, we have to stop supporting people we know are doing terribly unethical work.”

Cartoonists will often forward him images they felt ripped off others, Bors writes:

But many of my peers won’t so much as link to a plagiarism story when it’s published, content to merely complain privately over beers about people who in some cases survived their entire careers while blatantly swiping the work of others. The result is that many cartoonists haven’t even had to so much as publicly explain why their cartoons look so awfully similar to something else, and many editors are unaware it even happens.

Related: Columbus Dispatch editorial cartoonist resigns after plagiarism accusations | Second visual plagiarism case may lead to ethics guidelines for editorial cartoonists | Daily Cartoonist says it has caught Tulsa cartoonist plagiarizing for third time

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  • JTFloore

    i’m not “stuck” on anything, but that wouldn’t be such a bad thing since journalism IS, after all, about words and what they mean.

    without belaboring the point, i stand by my argument as outlined above: 1) there is no such thing as “self-plagiarism” because you cannot steal from yourself and 2) if there is no such thing as “self-plagiarism,” then it cannot be a synonym for “recycling.” one word cannot be a synonymn for another if one of the two words does not even exist.

    recycling is a very different topic, but it is done all the time, one way or another, to greater or lesser degrees, in daily journalism, ltierature, music, you name it. let my try to make the point this way:

    say reporter x inherited a beat from reporter y who quit becasue he won the lottery. six months ago reporter x wrote a story about an ongoing controversy that reporter y had long covered. and to give the story perspective, reporter x rewrote some of the material that reporter y had previously reported. today, reporter x is writing yet another story on the ongoing topic. today’s story will be 750 words, but only 350 words are new material. so reporter x’s latest story includes 400 words of information reported previously by himself and reporter y.

    is reporter x guilty of “plagiarism”? no. “self-plagiarism”? no, because there is no such thing, i.e. it is impossible to steal from yourself. is reporter x guilty of recycling ? well, yes, but is that a bad thing in this case? no. indeed, it is normal. it is not excessive in this case. it is routine. if reporter x had reported the latest information on the ongoing story but not used ANY information from his previous stories or from what reporter y had written, his story today would have no perspective and likely make little — if any — sense.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tedrall Ted Rall

    Since you’re stuck on the word rather than the content of the discussion here, how about “recycling”? Bill Day didn’t “update” a cartoon. An update would mean going into the archives online and changing something. He presented a cartoon that was 90% cut and pasted as new. That’s a lie. Dear Abby’s obituary mentioned that she almost lost her career for recycling previously published letters. It is a high crime of journalism, and anyone who calls herself or himself a journalist shouldn’t quibble over vocab.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tedrall Ted Rall

    Apple, meet orange.

    Prose journalism has rules. Journalists learn those rules in school or on the job. Cartooning has rules. Cartoonists learn them when they’re starting out in their college paper or whatever. Everyone knows these rules.

    If you insist on the parallel, however, the prose equivalent is to cut and paste 600 words from an article you wrote a few years ago, slap a new 50-word lede on top, and put it in the newspaper as a brand-new 650-word column.

    I don’t know a single editor who would tolerate that act.

    In fact, reporters have been fired for it and college students have been expelled for it.

  • JTFloore

    i think “originality” has little (if anything) to do with the topic at hand. is someone guilty of “self-plagiarism” when he writes a number of stories on the exact same topic and repeatedly uses prviously reported information in the latest update? my answer is no. my answer is it is absolutely impossible to steal from yourself.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Karen-Woodward-Sarrow/514858156 Karen Woodward Sarrow

    It may be a misnomer legally, but it has meaning to those who still believe originality has great value, and that skillfully transcribing visual thought requires it, even in your own work.

  • JTFloore

    and i quote: “There is nothing wrong with recycling old content as long as you label it. The problem is the intentional deception.”

    so a story that is the latest update of an evolving topic, part of which appeared in a story two weeks ago and then last week and now is once more being made current with another update, much of THAT needs to be “labeled” as “old content”? huh? “intentional deception”? huh? wtf. with all due respect, the holes in this logic are more than obvious. indeed, there is “old content” in virtually EVERYTHING published and broadcast. it raises the (silly) old question: do stories reported in the media in 2013 require footnotes? isn’t all this talk about so-called “self-plagiarism” and “old content” and “intentional deception” carrying things a bit far?

  • JTFloore

    this story refers to “Bill Day’s serial self-plagiarism”? huh? self-plagiarism? wtf? the dictionary says that someone plagiarizes when they “steal or pass off as one’s own (the ideas or words of ANOTHER)…” i have no idea how or where this notion of self-plagiarism comes from, maybe some academic who had too much time on his hands, maybe some editor who was trying to nail a reporter he didn’t like and wanted to get rid of. in any event, it is a ludicrous concept. it is utter nonsense.

    in order to plagiarize, you have to steal. exactly HOW does someone steal from himself? that is not possible. hence, there can be NO SUCH THING as “self-plagiariasm.” end of argument. (indeed, IF it is possible to steal from yourself, then the police can arrest any of us just about any time they want. how many of us believe that?)

  • http://www.facebook.com/tedrall Ted Rall

    Wow, Daryl Cagle’s comments are breathtaking in their contemptuous disregard for basic journalistic integrity. Editors probably aren’t complaining because editors probably don’t notice because editors are busy putting out a paper every day. No one should have to police their cartoonists or their cartoon syndicates. I have been in this racket most of my life, and it isn’t a secret that every newspaper editor in the country expects fresh content in every cartoon. There is nothing wrong with recycling old content as long as you label it. The problem is the intentional deception. And don’t even get me started on the fact that Daryl has pretty much destroyed the economics of this profession while simultaneously ruining the quality of the average cartoon that appears in an American newspaper, thus simultaneously discrediting the papers that they appear in and the profession of editorial cartooning.

    This is bottom-feeding of the lowest order. If there were any justice, people like him would be warming a prison cell.