Shia LaBeouf's Plagiarism Problem

When actor Shia LaBeouf released his short film, Howard Cantour, online in mid-December 2013 (the film had previously premiered at Cannes in May 2012 - with the credit "A Film By Shia LaBeouf" and no other credit for writing) claims of plagiarism soon arose. Apparently the film closely resembled a comic entitled Justin M. Damiano by Ghost World author Daniel Clowes - and Mr. LaBeouf had failed to credit Mr. Clowes - or even to acknowledge the inspiration.

At first Mr. LaBeouf seemed contrite. He tweeted the following from @thecampaignbook: “Copying isn’t particularly creative work. Being inspired by someone else’s idea to produce something new and different IS creative work. In my excitement and naiveté as an amateur filmmaker, I got lost in the creative process and neglected to follow proper accreditation. I’m embarrassed that I failed to credit @danielclowes for his original graphic novella Justin M. Damiano, which served as my inspiration. I was truly moved by his piece of work & I knew that it would make a poignant & relevant short. I apologize to all who assumed I wrote it. I deeply regret the manner in which these events have unfolded and want @danielclowes to know that I have a great respect for his work. I f***ed up.”

That might have ended it.

But it was quickly discovered that Mr. LaBeouf's apology itself wasn't that original. The actor had once again failed to acknowledge a source. This time, Mr. LaBeouf hadn't credited a Yahoo comment that "Lilli" had written four years ago: "copying isn't particularly creative work, though it's useful as training and practice. Being inspired by someone else's idea to produce something new and different IS creative work..."

The twittersphere was full of mockery over the Christmas holiday.

Then, on New Years Day, a message - “I am sorry Daniel Clowes” - appeared in skywriting over Los Angeles (viewable from  Hollywood, Glendale and Studio City). Followed by a tweet - “CLOUD: - vapor floating in the atmosphere - remote servers used to SHARE DATA - to make LESS CLEAR or TRANSPARENT” on Shia LaBeouf's Twitter account that also featured a photo of the skywriting.

The attention-seeking grandiosity of skywriting was not seen as a sincere apology in many circles online.

And then things got even weirder. 

Shia LaBeouf then posted a storyboard for a new project called Daniel Boring, apparently mocking another comic by Daniel Clowes entitled David Boring.  

While beating up on Daniel Clowes may seem like an appropriate response from where he sits, it doesn't seem to be winning Mr. LaBeouf many new fans.  

Apparently Shia LaBeouf feels his inspiration (unpermissioned taking?) is being mischaracterized. From his perspective, he's not a thief.  In his mind, he's an artist with integrity. And, while we're trying to see Shia LaBeouf's side, it is true that at least one film that helped to make him a star (e.g., Disturbia) did get away with taking inspiration from an earlier work - arguably without paying or properly acknowledging the authors of that underlying work.

In other words, Mr. LaBeouf may have come by his sense of entitlement and injury through his own experiences as a Hollywood movie star - where the normal rules apparently don't apply.

So is Mr. LaBeouf wrong to feel unduly persecuted?

When someone borrows from a prior work, what are the rules?

Even to someone like me, who advocates for a robust definition of "fair use," Mr. LaBeouf's grandiosity (e.g., skywriting an apology might work as a way for a rich man to impress a girlfriend, but in a copyright dispute it seems wildly disproportional and inappropriate) and his hostility toward a less wealthy artist who acted with discretion and within the law to defend his rights (e.g., why the hell would any reasonable person take a "Daniel Boring" swipe at Daniel Clowes?) suggest ShiaLaBeouf just fails to understand how regular people behave.

What does the law say?

The failure to acknowledge the source of his festival film - a work of narrative and visual art that was pretty clearly closely copied - feels like a moral offense (plagiarism). But it would take a trial to determine whether Mr. LaBeouf's copying rose to the level of a criminal offense. There's an argument to be made (I'm pretty sure it isn't a winner) that Shia LaBeouf only took ideas and not an unpermitted amount of expression here. Even if that argument isn't a winner, judges have been increasingly generous in allowing an unpermissioned taking of an underlying work, where the new work does copy some expression without permission, but the new work is also "transformative." So perhaps Shia LaBeouf's film might dodge a legal action for copyright infringement under fair use. (On these facts, I doubt that too.) 

The law of fair use doesn't lead to predictable results - so it's even possible that the same judge might rule different ways on similar facts - perhaps being swayed by the fact that the taker was a spoilt and insensitive prick.

We are not done yet...

However you feel about the moral and legal questions raised by Mr. LaBeouf's antics, his "Daniel Boring" storyboard prompted a tart letter to Mr. LaBeouf's lawyer from Mr. Clowes lawyer (that Mr. LaBeouf, of course, promptly posted to Twitter): "Your client is seriously out of control. He must stop his improper and outlandish conduct directed at Mr. Clowes and his works... Leave Mr. Clowes alone, and address and fix these problems immediately."

Today (January 10th, 2014) on Twitter Shia LaBeouf posted the following: "In light of the recent attacks against my artistic integrity, I am retiring from all public life."


Let's see how long that lasts.

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