Syndicates: Recent Plagiarism Charges Bring Common Problem To Light

By: Rob Tornoe

Syndicates: Recent Plagiarism Charges Bring Common Problem To Light

When talking about the types of cartoons that editors like to buy, Daryl Cagle, cartoonist for msnbc.com and owner of Cagle Cartoons syndicate, likes to refer to something called “The MacNelly Scale.” Referring to former Chicago Tribune cartoonist Jeff MacNelly’s popular style of art, Cagle thinks editors are more likely to buy and run cartoons that are reminiscent of MacNelly’s style.

Unfortunately, Oklahoma cartoonist David Simpson took this advice a bit too literally. Simpson, who was fired by the Tulsa World in 2005 for plagiarizing the work of Hartford Courant cartoonist Bob Englehart (syndicated by Cagle Cartoons), resigned from his freelance job as cartoonist for Urban Tulsa after it recently came to light he was repurposing the late MacNelly’s cartoons as his own.

In the Oct. 20-26 issue of Urban Tulsa, Simpson drew a cartoon depicting Tulsa’s ongoing dispute and angst with the taxpayer bailout of Great Plains Airlines. Unfortunately, Simpson’s cartoon was a complete retread of a cartoon MacNelly drew in the late 1970s depicting former President Jimmy Carter’s contrived bailout of the B-1 bomber.

After Alan Gardner of the Daily Cartoonist posted the similarities on his popular cartooning website, several other instances of copying have come to light — some more blatant than others. This has reopened a sore wound among cartoonists sensitive to the issue of copying. In Simpson’s case, his long history of stealing material from other cartoonists speaks for itself. But for others, the issue isn’t quite as black and white.

Earlier this year, Columbus Dispatch cartoonist Jeff Stahler (syndicated by Universal Uclick) was accused of plagiarism by columnist Andy Borowitz (syndicated by Creators). Borowitz wrote a piece headlined: “New Study Finds iPad Is Cure for Adultery; Owners ‘Stop Noticing Other People Altogether.’” Three days later, a cartoon by Stahler appeared in the Columbus Dispatch showing a group of people staring at their phones, captioned: “New study: Smartphone users are less likely to commit adultery, since they’ve stopped noticing others around them.”

Ben Marrison, editor of the Columbus Dispatch, investigated the claim and found that the similarity appeared to be a coincidence, but the incident underscores the fact that all cases of alleged cartoon plagiarism are different.

“Editorial cartoons are an art form that is made up of graphic images, symbols, and metaphors,” said John Cole, staff cartoonist for the Scranton (Pa.) Times-Tribune and president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC). “It’s your job as a cartoonist to blend ideas and be original, but with 70 or so cartoonists drawing five cartoons a week, there’s bound to be some overlap.”

Cole himself came face-to-face with this problem. Following the sex abuse scandal that occurred at Penn State, Cole was working on cartoon ideas about Penn State’s then head coach Joe Paterno. Since the alleged sexual abuse took place in Penn State’s showers, Cole (syndicated by Cagle Cartoons) settled on an idea of drawing a shower with Paterno’s reputation running down the drain. Then, he happened to notice that his peer, Nick Anderson of the Houston Chronicle (syndicated by Washington Post Writers Group), had drawn that exact idea.

“Well, there went that idea,” Cole said as he crumpled up the cartoon and came up with a new idea.

“Yes, there’s idea overlap, but that’s used as an excuse by cartoonists way too often to excuse laziness or downright plagiarism,” said syndicated cartoonist Matt Bors, an outspoken critic of the problems in the editorial cartooning world. Bors (syndicated by Universal Uclick) rubs some cartoonists’ feathers the wrong way by pointing out our “cartoon turds” on his blog, but Bors is serious about the credibility of the industry and the negative effects of plagiarism.

“Part of my goal is to have a unique sense of humor and sensibility that no one else is copying,” Bors said. “It sets me apart, and I’ll never have to come up with excuses.”

Bors said he thinks that a level of toonists is tolerated internally and very rarely gets called out. Simpson may be a recent case, but according to numerous cartoonists, a good number of professionals have been stealing from MacNelly stylistically for years without the same sort of criticism that Simpson faced.

Interestingly, MacNelly didn’t consider this sort of appropriation of his work plagiarism. As he told a panel at the AAEC’s 1990 convention in Seattle, “When a guy’s work looks like someone else’s work, it’s not plagiarism at all. I call that influence.”

Cole said that at the end of the day, it’s up to the individual cartoonist not to settle for the first idea that comes to mind, and to make any idea or cartoon uniquely their own. “If you take your name off your cartoon, will people still know it’s yours?” Cole asked rhetorically.

Still, for other cartoonists like Bors, the key is for them to hold themselves to a higher standard than simple gags and thoughtless symbols.

“Editors are paying a lot of money for their staff cartoonists. If I were an editor, I’d want those things to be as unique as possible,” Bors said. “Editors should want more from their cartoonists than just an interchangeable cartoon of the day.”

Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor & Publisher Magazine and edits the satirical humor magazine Delaware Punchline. He can be reached at rob@delawarepunchline.com.

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Published: December 12, 2011

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