Meet the Online Vigilante Battling Heavy Metal Art Theft
We know it's wrong, we know it's tacky, we know it's uninspired and easy to call out; but we do it anyway. No, I'm not talking about ghosting. I'm talking about something far, far scarier — a little thing we like to call plagiarism. Just in case you tuned out the first 20 times English teacher named it and shamed it, let's go over the definition: It's when you pass off someone else's previously created shit as your own. Considering how mimicry is basically ingrained into our DNA (monkey see, monkey do, after all) the rip-off's ubiquity in the art world will never fade. It's a bummer.
Still, that doesn't mean we can't strike back against it. With the advent of Google, Photoshop and other tools, it's never been easier to snuff out fakes. Enter DoctorWeir, the vigilante behind the blog Sad but True: Plagiarism in Heavy Metal Art. When they're not working as a visual artist, DoctorWeir (who maintains a masked identity to ensure privacy) acts as a watchdog for art theft — more specifically, plagiarized LP artwork. Visual imagery is essential to heavy metal culture, the author says, which makes exposing pilferers all the more important. We reached out to DoctorWeir to discuss Sad but True, artistic detective work, the fine line separating "inspired by" and "stolen from," and much more.
What inspired you to create this blog?
As a professional artist for almost 20 years, I have some experience with what you can and can't do with other people's media. All the time I see examples of minor and major plagiarism happen on metal album covers and, of course, no discussion about it happens. Nothing happens because a lot of people seem to have this idea that things like "fair use," "parody," "collage," etc., just absolves you of any responsibility of what you take from the internet, and that simply isn't true. There are criteria for each of those things to apply, and when it comes to commercial products like album covers (and anything that someone is profiting off of in general), you have a lot of restrictions on what you can and can't do.
After I launched the blog, I have received a ton of feedback online, and it is clear that a lot of people are simply not educated on this topic. My only goal is to help draw some light to examples that I have seen that are not okay.
Where do you personally draw the line between homage and rip-off?
Parody and homage, to me, mean that you are honoring the overall vibe and theme of a well-known thing, but you still create the entire thing yourself from scratch, and the most important part is that you are also adding your own spin to it. That is the key part that I think a lot of people miss. If I am in a band and I wanted to make a homage to Metallica's Ride the Lightning, I could have a stormy background with SOME kind of object in the middle being electrified, and the whole album cover could be blue. It could look very close, but I would need to make sure that I didn't directly cut and paste any elements from the original work, and I would need to make sure that whatever object I put in the middle of the piece wasn't an electric chair or even something CLOSE to an electric chair. It would have to be something more associated with whatever my band was about.
The minute that I cut and paste original artwork from Ride the Lightning into my own, then I have plagiarized it. This goes for parody as well. You can't just TAKE from the original source material and say it's yours. It doesn't work that way. That said, you absolutely can plagiarize a theme or concept as well, and in the example you posted, it would be up to courts to decide if there was intent to copy (and not a parody) or if it was a coincidence.
But my personal line is pretty simple, and that is, "Is there deception involved?" If the artist is trying to make it clear that they are honoring another work and they are NOT directly cutting and pasting from the source material, then I don't think it is plagiarism. If they are trying to do fishy things like flipping the source material, covering it up with Photoshop filters, and cutting and pasting another artist's painted strokes into their own works in order to make up for their own artistic shortcomings, then I absolutely feel that is plagiarism. And to be clear, it's very common in design to take from all sorts of source material that you don't own and do JUST that, but you have to transform what you are taking SO FAR for it to be acceptable. That is the part people have a hard time with. "What is an acceptable amount of change" is a line that moves depending on the artist.
But I think if you are cutting out a whole skeleton from a Frank Frazetta painting, that's plagiarism. Paint it yourself and you won't ever have any issues.
I've noticed that your evidence for certain plagiarism cases often involves subtle details — such as pilfered texture, posing or shading — that might otherwise go overlooked by a casual fan. Do you use any programs to isolate, identify and compare these elements, or do you do it all by eye?
No, I am just authoring a blog that is the end result of a lot of artists talking with each other over a long period of time. So, it's just the collective eye of many.
A lot of artists are getting really tired of the laziness of the craft at the moment, and are tired of seeing so many shortcuts being taken. Especially when those shortcuts involve taking artwork from other artists. Unless artwork is in the public domain, you can't take it without asking permission and citing the original creator. There's a myth online that "everything in Google is free for me to use" with amateurs. I say "amateurs" because real professionals know the rules already.
How did you come across most of the examples of plagiarism featured on the site? Did you come across them while browsing at a record shop or online? Through your own work? Sheer serendipity?
Some are found by friends of mine. Some are found when we start to see a particular plagiarist's art habits, and when you see their patterns, you can easily guess what their Google searches look like. You'd be surprised how many of them type in generic terms into Google and take results off of the first page they see. I've worked in the video game industry before, and I have seen, firsthand, people get in deep trouble for doing the exact same thing. Different industry, same rules.
Can plagiarism ever be accidental?
Good question, and I am not quite sure how to answer it. There might be some way for it to be an accident, but more often than not, it's just naiveté. I think internet culture has sort of forged a new generation of artists into thinking that if someone uploads something, then it is okay to take from it. That couldn't be farther from the truth. There are fair use rules, of course, but those typically only apply to nonprofit things. This is how come meme culture can thrive without any problems, but cutting and pasting from other artists can get you in trouble.
In your view, do bands carry a responsibility to ensure that their album artwork — like their music — is original? If the artist steals from a previous work that the band may not have been familiar with, is it guilt by association or a failure on the band's part?
I don't think so, no. I wouldn't expect a band to be able to police the people making art for their albums. I am not a lawyer, though, and so who knows? Maybe they would be responsible legally.
Album artwork carries a greater level of significance in the metal world than in other genres, and is taken much more seriously. Why do you think that is?
I think that the designs are just so intertwined with the culture and the music that it all becomes one thing. Everyone remembers getting a big vinyl, or a tape, or a CD, and flipping through the artwork and lyrics while you are listening to your album for the first time. And while that happens with every genre of music, I think that heavy metal just demands a certain type of visuals to sell it.
Ostensibly, you've gotten some angry emails from the artists called out on the site. Has the opposite scenario occurred? Has anyone reached out in appreciation?
Oh, absolutely. The amount of support that I have gotten from other artists has been staggering, and those are the people that I made the blog for. I don't care about any of the comments that people make on blogs or social media.
Has your work as an artist had any bearing on how you approach this issue? For non-artists, these things might not seem like a big deal, but on the other side of the fence, it's personal.
It is absolutely personal. I don't know for sure and I certainly don't dwell on it, but I have a suspicion that I have actually lost work to a known and proven plagiarist. Someone who isn't an artist and isn't trying to make a living like this has no clue how this affects the entire industry. I'll give you an example: There is a joke that gets tossed around, and it basically says that you can get two out of three choices when hiring an artist: cheap, fast and good. You can only pick two, meaning you can get something cheap and fast, but it probably won't be good. You can get something fast and good, but it won't be cheap — because the artist will want to charge more for doing it fast — etc.
When you are stealing artwork from other BETTER artists, of course you can produce something good, cheap and fast. That undercuts the entire industry. When a band can get pretty decent-looking artwork for pennies, it makes the pay curve of the industry seem a bit skewed. And of course, as if it needs to even be said, if you are literally cutting and pasting the very paint strokes of artists like Frank Frazetta, then your artwork is gonna look pretty killer! At least, the part of it that you stole.
Last but not least, what is your favorite metal album cover?
Difficult choice, but I would have to say Sepultura's Arise.