How does the Board of Regents at the University of the Philippines Diliman – the body charged with the university’s governance – feel about running the risk of erecting a statue to plagiarism? Seen to be celebrating plagiarism as a new right, perhaps? Is this institution ready to send a message to its students and to the wider academic world that its policy is to dismiss such concerns out of hand? No one knows for certain whether an act of plagiarism has been perpetrated by one of the students but there’s undoubtedly a perception it may have happened – and the Regents’ silence isn’t helping.
A sculptural installation just unveiled at UP Diliman entitled “Uplift” bears a more-than-striking resemblance to a work – “The Virgins of Apeldoorn” – produced by Dutch artist, Elisabet Stienstra, 16 years ago: (photos, right and left respectively)
The Filipino engineering/psychology student, Ferdinand Cacnio, who rendered Uplift for UP naturally denies it’s a copy. He says he’s never been to The Netherlands where the older work is displayed; he’d never heard of that work’s creator before. He claims the work is entirely original. Based on that, despite the near identical rendering of the two pieces in terms of theme and execution, it would seem an amazing coincidence has occurred.
But despite that and a determined defence of Cacnio’s artistic integrity by fellow UP students, the Dutch artist herself is in no doubt that the work is a copy of hers. On her behalf, her husband posted this on Facebook:
“She [Elisabet Stienstra] would like it to be known however that she sees Mr. Cacnio’s sculpture as plagiarism. The principle of her work (made in 2001) is to use sculptural conventions to suggest weightlessness. Mr. Cacnio’s sculpture does not only imitate her idea in general terms, but also in specific terms: the long hanging hair, the falling-back head, the outstretched arms, the outstretched body. The similarities are too evident to be coincidental. Plagiarism is still plagiarism even if a few details have been altered”.
But here’s the test for plagiarism as prescribed by copyright-protection advocate, Plagiarism Today. First ‘access’ needs to be proved – that means access to the original work. Without that copying isn’t possible. Secondly, there needs to be ‘probative similarities’ between the two works. If sufficient, this would provide evidence of copying. Thirdly, ‘lack of attribution’. If a work is ascribed to another work, while there may still be copyright infringement, it cannot be claimed to be plagiarist.
Thus, according to these criteria, if there’s been access to the original work, if evidence of copying is determined by an “ordinary observer” (we’ll come to that in a minute), and if there’s been a failure to provide adequate attribution, then, according to Plagiarism Today, “you are very likely looking at plagiarism”.
So, let’s look at all that in the context of the above debacle.
Access. There’s no question that Cacnio had access to the original work. It matters not that he’s never been to the Netherlands; that he’s never heard of the Dutch artist – both of which he claims. The Virgins of Apeldoorn is readily accessible on the Internet and has been for years. One might also suppose that someone wishing to produce a piece of sculpture might well research online.
Probative similarities. These can be ascertained by what’s been called “the ordinary observer test”. This asks a simple question: “Would a member of the intended audience, if aware of both works, notice the similarities and conjure up the other work?” If the answer is yes, then it probably is a copy. In this case, then, if an ordinary observer – someone without any background in art or the finer points of sculpture – looked at Uplift having seen The Virgins of Apeldoorn, would that person notice similarities. A number of online observes have already connected the two works.
Lack of attribution. Not only is there no attribution to the earlier work, there’s been an outright denial by Cacnio that he had any knowledge of it.
It’s not for us to say whether Cacnio committed this offence in executing his work – though, if we were an ‘ordinary observer’ we would certainly notice the similarities between his work and Stienstra’s exhibit.
It is, however, up to UP Diliman to make a sensible adjudication on this matter, for if indeed it is a copy then the work’s installation at the university would symbolise the university’s endorsement of plagiarism – at best that the university’s administration is prepared to turn a blind eye to it. And for a university that’s reputed to have the finest law school in the country – the UP College of Law which doubtless deals at length with copyright law – that could be extremely damaging to its prestige. It wouldn’t jive too well with the university motto, “Honor and Excellence,” either.
Plagiarism – piracy, forgery, call it what you want, but theft by any other name – is a serious offence. It is the stealing of someone else’s property. It’s no different in effect to robbing someone in the street. Unfortunately because it often deals, as in this case, with ideas, imagination, conceptualisation – things that have no physical properties; intangibles – there are often grey areas. Denials, therefore, can be difficult to disprove.
Of course, just because plagiarism is alleged it doesn’t automatically follow that plagiarism has been committed. But such claims should not be summarily dismissed. They require – in the interests of “Honor and Excellence” – an independent appraisal; in other words, in this case, not by an in-house panel that would leave the university open to charges of a whitewash and bias in the event of the local artist being exonerated.
This isn’t the first time the Philippines has been in the spotlight for suspected plagiarism. And a repeat alleged offender has been the Department of Tourism (DOT).
Back in 2012 the DOT was under a cloud for its promotion slogan “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” which carried a strikingly similar message to a 1951 promotion put out by the Swiss National Tourism Board which stated: “It’s More Fun in Switzerland”.
Same message, different place. But for then Philippine tourism secretary, Ramon Jiminez Jr., it was simply a coincidence. “If you look hard enough, you might even find an old ad that says ‘it’s more fun in Alcatraz!'” he tweeted at the time. That assertion, however, we would definitely dispute – as did outraged Filipinos online.
Two years earlier, the DOT was under fire for a piece of artwork which seemed to take its inspiration from a Polish tourism ad. Both used a near identical typeface, bore common elements of a tree and waves and adopted more or less the same colour scheme. The only element that was different was the words – one proclaimed “Polska”, the Polish word for Poland; the other, Pilipinas Kay Ganda (Philippines So Beautiful).
At first, then-tourism-secretary, Alberto Lim, merely admitted to their being some similarities between the two works while tourism undersecretary, Enteng Romano stated categorically, “There is no plagiarism. There are enough elements in the Pilipinas logo to differentiate it from that of Poland”.
The public was having none of it however, and after a formidable backlash against the DOT online, then-president Benigno Noynoy Aquino had it scrapped. Romano accepted responsibility, apologised to Aquino, Lim and the Filipino people and resigned.
And earlier this month, the DOT was in hot water once again with another tourism campaign which seems to have been “borrowed” from someone else. This time it was a video entitled “Sights: Experience the Philippines” and produced for the DOT by McCann Worldgroup Philippines, part of the global ad-agency network, McCann.
The entire theme of this work more or less replicated that of a 2014 video tourism promotion that was launched by the South African Tourism Board in 2014. Netizens in the Philppines again were up in arms that there country was being promoted with material taken from elsewhere. This time, however, the DOT didn’t go the route of claiming that there were similarities … but it’s just a coincidence, they conceded it was a rip off, sacked McCann and asked for an apology from the agency.
If indeed Cacnio did copy Stienstra’s work, as an artist he’s in good company. Andy Wahol’s work, Flowers, was based on a photograph taken by Patricia Caulfield and published in Modern Photography magazine in June 1964. The acclaimed American artist didn’t deny plagiarism. He provided Caulfield with an out-of-court settlement, a future-use royalty agreement and two of his paintings.
American author, Alex Haley, did well from plagiarising. Although he settled out of court – reportedly he paid US$500,000 for the case to go away – he was rewarded with a Special Citation from Pulitzer for his work, Roots: the Saga of an American Family which had liberally extracted passage from Harold Courlander’s The African.
What’s interesting and encouraging about all the Philippine cases is that efforts to decry plagiarism have come not from those closely associated with the offence or the alleged offence – nor from the legal profession which is supposed to guard society against such abuses – but from ordinary citizens who are not prepared to stand by and let establishment institutions get away with stealing other people’s property and claiming it as there own.
That’s refreshing in a country dogged by corruption on so many levels. It shows that even if the courts and other bodies aren’t prepared to hold possible thieves to account, the people – the new true watchdogs of fairness – are. The ball is now in UP Diliman’s court. We’re sure Filipino Netizens will be watching with interest to see how they play it. Hopefully, the Regents won’t let it bounce out of court in the hope of it being lost in the weeds.