Text: Keeping the Balance: Copyright, Plagiarism, and Creative Code in the Classroom | BRAD TOBER

Text: Keeping the Balance: Copyright, Plagiarism, and Creative Code in the Classroom | BRAD TOBER

While the definitions of copyright infringement and plagiarism are distinct, their applications in practice often feature overlaps and intersections. Some cases of copyright infringement might also be cases of plagiarism, while other situations may be characterized as only one of the two definitions[1]. In academic settings, plagiarism often receives more attention, due to its focus on individual integrity; copyright infringement can be, and is, overlooked under claims of fair use. However, the art and design disciplines, where inspiration and appropriation are valid modes of practice, have a somewhat unique relationship with the concept of plagiarism. This is becoming even more apparent with the increasing realization of programming and code-based technologies as media for executing art and design work. With these new media come a need to clarify the roles of and the relationship between the artist or designer and the source of any appropriated code.

Plagiarism in “traditional” academic disciplines is typically clear-cut, once a potential case has been identified. For example, many universities have contracted with services like Turnitin[2] to automatically analyze electronically submitted assignments, such as research papers, for potential plagiarism. Even without this automation, however, faculty members are often keen to recognize when an aspect of a student’s submission is uncharacteristic of his or her own effort. In comparison, making a determination of plagiarism in a work of art and design is typically more subjective. The separation between inspiration and outright copying is much more difficult to identify, not to mention that there are no automated services to aid in the process of doing so (one might argue that Google Images’ ability to use an image file as a search query addresses part of this issue, but it is not yet a practical solution by any means). Still, there exists the rare case of art and design plagiarism; a faculty member in my department recently dealt with the issue of a student submitting work that was merely the customization of a design template available online—his discovery of this infringement was pure coincidence, as he just happened to encounter the template while casually browsing online portfolios shortly after the project submission.

The increasing interest in and use of code/programming as a creative tool adds another degree of difficulty to this discussion of plagiarism in art and design. Processing, one of the pre-eminent “programming language[s] and environment[s] for people who want to create images, animations, and interactions,” frames learning to code as involving “looking at lots of other code: running, altering, breaking, and enhancing it until you can reshape it into something new”[3]. As both a learning method and as general practice, the re-use of code written by others is actively encouraged within the creative code communities, and this is something that, in my experience, art and design students are often uncomfortable with. This can be attributed to two primary issues: one, students are anxious about the potential to commit plagiarism in a medium in which it could be relatively easy to do so (compared to other media used in art and design practice), and two, students are often entirely unfamiliar with the culture surrounding the creative code communities.

It is important to note the distinctions between learning to code creatively and learning to do so within a computer science context. Artists and designers are not typically interested in learning how code works at a very technical level; rather, they desire to achieve a certain end result (in the form of a work of art and design). After all, code can be characterized as just another medium for executing one’s art and design work. In computer science, particularly in introductory/lower-level undergraduate courses, obtaining this technical knowledge is often one objective of learning to program—applications of this knowledge often come later. Thus, plagiarism, in the form of the re-use of code written by someone else, receives special attention—to the extent that many computer science faculty members write their own programs designed to analyze and detect plagiarism in the programming-based assignments students submit[4] [5].

I propose that promoting awareness of three key aspects of creative coding practice will encourage students to embrace the appropriation of others’ code as a valid learning method:

1. Proper citation is important: As with any other type of sourced material, giving credit where credit is due is essential when appropriating others’ code for use in one’s own work. While citing an extensive amount of material might be frowned upon in a research paper (even when cited properly), there is no such practical limit with code. Students should be well acquainted with how to properly comment their code in order to incorporate adequate citations. For appropriated code that has been unchanged from its source, consider encapsulating the code in comments, clearly identifying the author, source, version (if available), and date of access. For code that has been significantly altered and mixed with other code, a single comment with the same citation information can be placed at the beginning of the file.

2. Code is often licensed: It is very easy to ignore licenses—how many of us mindlessly click through the license acceptance screen when installing a new software application? However, it is important to realize that licenses afford users of software (or code) specific rights and responsibilities, working alongside copyright rather than serving as a replacement for it. As an example of free and open-source software (meaning that the source code has been made open to the public), the Processing Development Environment has been released using the GNU General Public License, specifying that derived works may only be distributed under the same license [3] [6]. Another category of licenses—Creative Commons—provides clear and easy-to-understand indications as to the restrictions on the modification, redistribution, and commercial use of licensed work[7]. While it is not necessary to memorize the specific terms of each license type, it is important to know how to access information regarding the license under which code has been released. Students should also realize that the integrity of the open-source software movement depends on respecting and carefully abiding by the appropriate terms when using licensed content.

3. The entire creative coding community benefits through the sharing of code: Perhaps most importantly, students must realize that the appropriation of code is not solely about the appropriator’s use; rather, it is the act of sharing one’s work that serves to empower the community. Casey Reas and Ben Fry, co-founders of Processing, note that “[p]eople are encouraged to publish the code for programs they’ve written in Processing. The same way the ‘view source’ function in Web browsers encouraged the rapid proliferation of website-creation skills, access to others’ Processing code enables members of the community to learn from each other so that the skills of the community increase as a whole”[8]. Collaboration of this nature also provides opportunities for the creation of work that would be otherwise impossible to pursue. Throughout an art and design student’s education, it is critical that he or she begin to understand that his or her work does not exist within a vacuum—it is subject to interaction with and influence by the work of other artists and designers. Students should be encouraged to actively engage with the creative coding community in the interest of further developing their own body of work.

Plagiarism will not cease being an issue within the academic environment anytime soon. While “traditional” cases of plagiarism are few and far between in art and design practice, the increasing use of creative code as an art and design medium may be artificially limited by students’ irrational fear of unintentionally committing plagiarism when appropriating existing code in their work. This, however, is an issue that can be effectively managed through fostering students’ awareness of the nature of creative code and its associated community.


[1] Reas, Casey, and Ben Fry. Processing: A Programming Handbook for Visual Designers and Artists. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007. Print.

[2] Creative Commons. Creative Commons. 2013. Web. 10 Feb. 2013.

[3] Licenses – GNU Project. Free Software Foundation, Inc. 2013. Web. 10 Feb. 2013.

[4] Jenkins, Tony. “Teaching programming–A journey from teacher to motivator.” The 2nd Annual Conference of the LSTN Center for Information and Computer Science. 2001. Web. 10 Feb. 2013.

[5] Teague, Donna M., and Paul Roe. “Learning to program: Going pair-shaped.” ITALICS 6.4 (2007). Web. 10 Feb. 2013.

[6] Processing.org. Processing. 2013. Web. 10 Feb. 2013.

[7] Turnitin. iParadigms, LLC. 2013. Web. 10 Feb. 2013.

[8] Alexander, Isabella. “Inspiration or infringement: the plagiarist in court.” Copyright and Piracy: An Interdisciplinary Critique. Ed. Lionel Bently, Jennifer Davis, and Jane C. Ginsburg. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2010. 3–16. Web. 10 Feb. 2013.


Brad Tober is an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign in Champaign, Illinois, USA. His work explores the potential of emerging code-based and interactive visual communication technologies, with the objective of developing applications of them to design practice and pedagogy.