Issue 20

Copy & Paste: Originality and Plagiarism in Popular Culture

Shree Bhattacharyya

People are quick to judge whenever one piece of work remotely resembles another, and the question arises: are we imposing originality on popular culture?

Artists are often inspired by life and take inspiration from creative people around them. James Joyce’s Ulysses and Margeret Atwood’s Penelopiad are based on Homer’s The Odyssey. Taylor Swift wrote Tolerate It after reading Daphne De Maurier’s Rebecca, and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds by The Beatles was inspired by Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Whether in art, literature, or popular culture, there are elements of the past that amalgamate with the ideas of the present. 

Taking ideas from existing pieces of work and creating something new can be done through adaptation, sampling and spin-offs. An adaptation is when a play or a movie is based on a novel or short story. The film Burning, directed by Lee Chang-dong, is based on Haruki Murakami’s short story Barn Burning. Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay was inspired by The Magnificent Seven, which was based on Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Sampling is when a portion of a sound recording is reused in another recording. The catchy instrumental in Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy Aaja by Parvati Khan and Bappi Lahiri was inspired by T’es OK by Ottawan, and was later sampled in M.I.A.’s Jimmy. A spin-off is when a TV show, film, or any other popular entertainment focuses on a few characters or ideas from an already existing work. In 2022, the popular game Wordle inspired many spin-offs such as Nerdle, which had the same rules as the original but was slightly modified. Bollywood uses spin-offs as its “golden goose” and has produced an innumerable number of them, such as Naam Shabana and Bob Biswa. Through these mediums, one can see that it is indisputable that art is not stagnant, and popular culture runs on the creativity of the past. 

Popular culture is known for its “popularity”, and therefore, it’s no surprise that when something gains the attention of many, other artists instantly look towards it for inspiration. The media and art are meant to be provocative and evocative, and it is clear that art influences art. However, when influence merges with copying, the word plagiarism becomes operative. In March, Tiger Shroff was accused of plagiarism when his latest single Poori Gal Baat’s lyrics and style held a striking resemblance to K-pop star Kai’s Peaches. Shroff has stated that he appreciates Kai as an artist, however, people were quick to call him out for not giving due credit. In 2021, Olivia Rodrigo was accused of copying various artists when her debut album Sour garnered global success. She was blamed for plagiarising Taylor Swift and Paramore– even though her album cites credits to Taylor Swift and later, to members of Paramore too. Elvis Costello, while responding to claims that Rodrigo had borrowed from his track Pump It Up, stated, “It’s how rock and roll works. You take the broken pieces of another thrill and make a brand new toy. That’s what I did”. If everyone is making a brand new toy with existing work, where does originality lie? People are quick to judge whenever one piece of work remotely resembles another, and the question arises: are we imposing originality on popular culture?

The latest trend of TikTok (or reels) is one of the mediums where originality both flourishes and perishes. Various audios, dance moves, and jokes become “trends” that everyone on the platform copies. Some put their own twist on it, whereas some directly imitate. It is in this wildly popular phenomenon that the mark of originality and plagiarism gets even more confusing. Is it fair to “cancel” every TikTok that may resemble another? In January, “you’ve gotta put ME first” audio from the television show Empire became a viral trend on TikTok. Who owns this trend? Does it belong to the creators of the show, the creator of the meme, TikTok, or no one at all? Some may view this situation as a plagiarism or copyright issue. However, it also shows the inherent beauty in popular culture. Someone has taken a sample from an existing work and has created something new that has not only influenced many but has also made them laugh. 

The Beatles, Elvis Costello, Lee Chang-dong, Greta Gerwig, Ramesh Sippy are few among many who have taken inspiration and have created something that has lasted in time. It has made a mark, and perhaps years from now, someone might even see the everlasting impact of the trends on TikTok. In a day and age where attention is few and fleeting, art and popular culture remains that which unites and creates. So, perhaps, there is no need to impose originality on popular culture. However, it is important to note that this is in no way an argument for a lack of copyright protection or not safeguarding artist’s rights. Plagiarism is still extremely wrong and those who have worked hard and authentically should always be given credit for their artistic expression. Rather, this is a call for not being so harsh on those who create content that may resemble or be inspired by previous work. As long as the artists are respectful and acknowledging, they should be appreciated and not incessantly compared. The consumers of popular culture need to remember the nature of art is to influence and inspire – not stifle. 

Shree Bhattacharyya is a student of English literature and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

Picture Credits: Shree Bhattacharyya

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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