Ethics of photo theft, inspiration, and originality

It goes without saying that photo theft isn't good, but the challenge lies in identifying what is and isn't stealing. Originality isn't easy in a world where many people have creative visions and form their own styles by emulating the styles of others.

Of course, a clear sign of theft is if someone saves your image and posts it elsewhere. But what if someone claims that they're inspired by you and takes a photo very similar to yours? Or what if a coincidence happens where two people happen to take almost the same photo? How are we supposed to draw the line? In this post I will provide examples I have come across and share my opinion about them. Please share your thoughts as well!

The following is a photo by Tat (@_deepsky) and features Naki (@nakinavy) as a model.

After Tat posted the photo, similar images began popping up. 

Hiro (@hiro_510

Norito (@norito_m)

Wataru (@locowataru5)

Takahiro (@takaphilography) ft. Sayaka (@sayacam.jp)

Are these instances of inspiration, stealing, or just coincidence? All have a common concept, but only the photographers themselves know the source of their inspiration. All four of the photos were posted on Instagram within half a year of Tat's; two of them appeared in less than a month. Considering the time frame and similarities, these were likely to have been inspired by Tat’s photo.

Kei (@spatialflow) brought up that one of his photos (the one on the left below) was copied by Isaac (@invictusrly). Kei's shot is titled "@j9ryl in hyperspace" while Isaac's is called "Racing into hyperspace with @weijiekeithfung." Both are shot in the same location with the same technique, similar subject, and reflection.

After initial backlash, Isaac apologized and replied to Kei on his post with: "Hey Kei! I'm really sorry about this post. I should have given you the due credit when I first posted this and was never my intention to cause any misunderstanding." Isaac then added "Shot inspired by @spatialflow" to the caption.

The concept and execution of these photos were nearly identical, so in this scenario, I don’t think "inspiration" represents the conception of the second image well. The Oxford Dictionary defines inspiration as, "The process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative." When you get inspired by something, you should create something new that you can call your own, not copy something without applying much of your own creativity.

Then there are the crazy coincidences. Ever heard of the case of Dennis the Menace? Two separate creators, one from the US and one from the UK, created a character named "Dennis the Menace." Both comics were put for sale on March 12th, 1951. It was discovered that neither one of the creators knew each other, and it really was just strange fate. Though this example isn’t photography, it highlights the high potential of creative overlap.

The line between being inspired and stealing an idea can be difficult to draw. Are the examples I provided inspiration or more of theft? Is it possible to have an idea that's completely original? Let me know what you think in the comments below!