Second visual plagiarism case may lead to ethics guidelines for editorial cartoonists

Does one confirmed case of visual plagiarism (Urban Tulsa Weekly's David Simpson stealing from the late Jeff MacNelly) and one new alleged case (Columbus Dispatch's Jeff Stahler panels looking and reading remarkably similar to David Sipress's work in The New Yorker) mean it’s time for the nation’s editorial cartoonists to establish a professional canon of ethics specific to their line of work?

That’s the issue John Cole, president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC), and his board of directors is wrestling with this week following disclosure that Stahler may have lifted text and some visuals for his newspaper work. (Stahler's work was indefinitely suspended from the Dispatch on Tuesday.)

"We called up a copy of our bylaws earlier today," Cole said on Tuesday. "The board is deciding how we're going to proceed with this."

Obviously, no one approves of plagiarism; especially (not) the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. The question is, what is the role of the association in a situation like this? Is it the place of the Editorial Cartoonists to police or call out obvious examples or examples that its members perceive? The standard for plagiarism seems to be different for different people. Some people, it's a direct copying of a cartoon. Other people, it's using a similar gag or similar idea for a cartoon. There is a question of what exactly the role of the association would be.

The challenge for the AAEC in its response is not to overreact without knowing whether it is dealing with a brushfire or a wildfire.

"There is no conventional, set standard," according to Cole. "When people say 'plagiarism,' plagiarism in the classic sense is one person directly knocking off another person's work and passing it off as their own. Then there are degrees of that. We're discussing putting together some sort of background. There is a long history; there are examples. We're working with some of our members who are versed in the history of cartooning. At what point does tradition and influence bleed over into theft?" (Listen to entire interview with Cole.)

Editorial cartoonist Chip Bok, whose work is distributed by Creators Syndicate, worries that his friend Stahler may be feeling pressure to produce too much content, between his editorial cartooning for the Columbus Dispatch and his daily comic panel, "Moderately Confused," distributed by Universal UClick for UFS.

Chip Bok editorial cartoon
Chip Bok wrote of this recent cartoon he drew, "It was based on a Don Wright Vietnam cartoon. You could be kind and call it an homage or cruel and call it plagiarism. I like it because it shows a guy who, in the name of the U.S. government, fucked up the very people's lives he claimed to help. Same as the US military in the Vietnam cartoon."

"Jeff doesn't seem like the kind of guy to me who would deliberately plagiarize a cartoon," Bok told me. "He has a heavy workload because he has a comic strip as well as an editorial cartoon. It may be that the pressure to meet a deadline caused him to consciously or probably subconsciously lift a gag from another cartoon. That's his responsibility; carrying that much work, it's up to him.

"I've been in that situation when you're up against a deadline and you just draw something," Bok continued. "I have drawn cartoons that were derivative of cartoons I've seen before and had no idea. Besides, it's a crappy cartoon and you wish you hadn't done it. We're cartoonists and therefore we're procrastinators and we're always up against deadlines. Deadline pressure is a two-edged sword. It can get the juices going but it can also lead to things like this." (Watch the Bok interview.) editor Alan Gardner broke news of the possible Stahler infraction on Tuesday. He told me that the evidence came from the same source who, a month earlier, demonstrated that Tulsa Urban Weekly cartoonist David Simpson had used a lightbox to copy Jeff MacNelly cartoons and call them his own. Gardner calls his source a "middle man" and not necessarily the original diviner of the improprieties.

"I was blind copied on an email that had a link to [Stahler's] cartoon about the resume and a link to the [David] Sipress cartoon," Gardner said. "I forwarded that on to Stahler. I thought it was way too similar to be just a coincidence. I said, 'What's up with this? Do you have a response to this?' ... There is a back-channel within the community. The AAEC has a list group for their members. That email that I was blind copied on was heading into that group for discussion." (Listen to entire interview with Gardner.)

The AAEC does not currently have either ethical guidelines or training programs for its members, but Cole says both are now under consideration.

I've been drawing cartoons for almost 20 years now and I've been hearing about David Simpson for ages. His story goes way back. Jeff is a different matter. He's an established syndicated cartoonist and obviously some people have found some similarities between his cartoons and other cartoons in the past. I wouldn't make a comparison between the two. I think some people, over time, have seen similarities between Jeff's cartoons and other cartoons going back a matter of years. With David Simpson's case, you had lightboxing. He would take a Jeff MacNelly cartoon, literally slap it on a lightbox and trace it. That is, of course, the gold standard of plagiarism, when you basically appropriate someone else's image and claim it as your own.

I asked Gardner if he was concerned, after Simpson and perhaps Stahler, that visual plagiarism is widespread or if it's just a fluke having two cases revealed so close together.

"It comes up, but rarely more than once a year," he said. "It's really tough to know. If you just took Stahler's New Yorker cartoons, the 'Nationalized Bank' is an easy gag. It would be very unlikely that two cartoonists couldn't come up with the same gag. I was just passed an email with a couple cartoons about the postal service being slow. Two cartoons, a mailman riding on a snail. They both ran in the past couple days by two notable syndicated cartoonists. These things happen. How do you know that it's a genuine case of plagiarism or not? It's really hard to know for sure who's blatantly doing it and who just has the same creative idea..."

As for Cole and the AAEC, he doesn't think editorial cartoonists start off bad. Sometimes they're just drawn that way.

"Every cartoonist starts off basically learning [the business] for themselves," he said. "When you're 20 years old, learning how the business works, that's how you start out. Hopefully, out of that, people develop their own styles. What are the nuances between that and David Simpson? That's what we're trying to look at right now."

The basic cartoonist's philosophy, Cole said, should be, " 'Originality good, plagiarism bad.' It's really that simple."

Update: AAEC's Cole emailed four days after this story was published: "I want to let you know that -- hold the phone -- the AAEC does indeed have a code of ethics regarding plagiarism written into its Bylaws. The article, which provides for the suspension or expulsion of a member for appropriating the work of others, was added in September 2009. I, as well as a few others on our board, had forgotten about it. When we spoke, I was working from an older copy of our Bylaws."

Correction: This story originally included the wrong name for the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists.

  • Bob Andelman

    Writer, author of 12 books including three business bestsellers - Built From Scratch (w/founders of The Home Depot), Mean Business (w/Albert J. Dunlap) and The Profit Zone (w/Adrian Slywotzky). Latest book is The Profiler written with criminal profiler Pat Brown.


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