Faculty Evaluation and Coaching Department
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Visual Plagiarism

As you probably know, plagiarism is no longer merely the domain of the written word. Visual plagiarism, where students copy or rely too heavily on image-based works, is widespread. If you’re concerned about this issue, you’re not alone.

Consider this:

  • In some disciplines, there is a fine line between homage and idea theft. In today’s digital world the line is continually blurred due to easy access to images for “borrowing” or manipulation.
  • According to the European Commission, about 7-10% of global commerce is made up of copied work. These knock-offs cause economic losses of $200 to $300 billion and the loss of 200,000 jobs annually. 1

It’s important to show students not only what their responsibilities are as art & design professionals, but also what their rights are. Students should know about the ethical, legal, and professional consequences for borrowing others’ work too liberally, and what to do if they find that their own work has been copied or borrowed.

One of the best ways to deter visual plagiarism is to address it preemptively. Talk about the importance of copying from the masters for the sake of skill-building and expanding one’s knowledge, versus the perils of stealing from the masters (or one’s classmates). You can take similar steps for deterring visual plagiarism as you would for deterring plagiarism in written assignments:

  • Require multiple drafts of projects and have students document their progress through drafts in a sketchbook, whether it’s paper-based or digital. This is a valuable habit that will serve them throughout their careers.
  • Ask for evidence of students’ research (including citations) as a professional best practice. You can share the MLA guide on the Academy library web site with students, which even shows how to cite images. You can also request a “roving librarian” to come to your class and teach about effective research to prevent plagiarism.
  • Add a personalized component to your assignment, whether it’s text- or image-based. For example, students have to write a paragraph a week that shows the evolution of their ideas.
  • If you teach online, try this strategy from the Foundations department: their instructors require online students to photograph themselves holding their work.

Here are some additional activities to engage your students on this topic and bring it to the forefront:

  • Assign students to read this short article and ask them to prepare brief arguments from the perspectives of 1) the original creative and 2) a budding creative who was inspired by the work. Students could debate in small groups or pairs briefly in class, followed by a class-wide discussion about how this topic affects your industry and their work.
  • Look at the annual “Plagiarius” award winners with your class. This is a “negative award” that calls attention to the “problem of brand and product piracy “ and its consequences. Have the students discuss what the implications for knock-offs are for the original designers, consumers, and retailers. What steps can they take as budding designers to deter these practices?


The Academy Writing Lab’s page on Plagiarism for our students is a good place to start.

Our Academic honesty policy begins about halfway down this page and addresses both visual and written work. Please document cases of plagiarism, bring them to your director, and keep a paper trail.

Sketchbooks | University of the Arts London

Rights for artists

Stopping Internet Plagiarism

If you teach writing, check out this great 37-minute film, “Easy Essay,” on writing strategies for visual artists from the University of the Arts London. It could also be shown to students, in small segments, during class. It takes a while to download; be patient if Quicktime stalls.

For further reading on plagiarism (not necessarily related to teaching, but interesting nonetheless!)

The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism | Harpers Magazine 2007

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