These Photos Show the Thin Lines Between Coincidence, Plagiarism, and Inspiration

These Photos Show the Thin Lines Between Coincidence, Plagiarism, and Inspiration

What follows is one of the strangest and most remarkable coincidences I've ever come across in the world of photography. We've heard of photos that were blatantly stolen, but what happens when the concept of a major digital art project is copied? Is it even possible to copy a "copy" of an idea, or can two different artists be inspired to come up with the exact same concept completely independently? This is the tale of two composite photographs.

This whole idea came to light when Fstoppers posted this article about a month ago. Ankur Patar was hired by Adobe as part of a campaign to show off their stock photo collection. His task was to recreate "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee," a 1633 painting by Rembrandt that was stolen in 1990 and never recovered. Using only stock images, Patar was able to create a remarkable imitation; you can see his process here on his website and the final result below.

In the comments of our article on Adobe's incredible stock photo concept, Patrick Hall noticed something bizarre: an artist in the Fstoppers Community had posted his own recreation of the exact same Rembrandt painting six months prior to Adobe's new ad campaign. Although Joël Vegt's version was a bit more humorous, the resemblance was rather uncanny. 

Mathematically speaking, the probability of this being coincidence seemed small, so I reached out to both Vegt and Patar to get their take on both pieces of digital art. Vegt was surprised; he had never heard of the Adobe campaign and wasn't aware of Patar's image. The story got stranger as we went on. It turns out that Vegt had made a social media post on January 9, 2014 asking his followers to help him decide which classic painting to recreate. After deciding on Rembrandt's "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee," Vegt posted his first digital composite on October 13, 2015: 

The original intent of his version was simply to build his portfolio and make an image featuring three of his friend's children portrayed as pirates on the sea. Vegt chose the Rembrandt painting because he felt a full-size pirate ship would make the models seem too small in comparison. The work was a huge success and brought Lumistroke, the company he started with his business partner, Marc Marselje, a good deal of praise and accolades. 

I'm not a digital artist, so I deferred to Vegt's expertise when asking him what he thought of the coincidence. He expressed disbelief at the idea of a coincidence, reasoning that "it's easier to commission someone to recreate it when you've seen it can be done." I decided to look up the painting's title on major photo-sharing sites to see if this concept  had been done before. Maybe there was an underground trend of digital artists recreating classic Baroque era paintings with stock art. My online search became futile as I found no other pieces of digital art combining these two ideas together. Then, Vegt pointed out something truly remarkable.

Some of the images used in the Adobe commissioned art were the same as what Vegt used in his rendition. As you can see above, both images contain the exact same image of a wave splash in nearly the exact same spot of the composite. Statistically, this seems unlikely, but to be fair, perhaps this specific image of an ocean splash is so popular on all micro stock sites that it would be an obvious choice for someone wanting to composite a painting like this. Its shape also matches the original painting in that area quite well. 

At this point, I reached out to Patar, the creator of Adobe's version, to ask his side of things. He was genuinely surprised; he had never seen Vegt's version before and mentioned that he had been assigned the Rembrandt painting by Adobe for the project. He himself noted that it was a "really big coincidence."

And so finally, I reached out to Adobe. They indicated that they had not seen Vegt's image on Fstoppers previously, and they had hired the advertising firm Goodby Silverstein and Partners to coordinate the project. Adobe further noted that "images were solely chosen based on famous lost works of art. It's not surprising to see other artists replicate these well-known images, and in fact, we hope many more are inspired to do so." It appears the agency handled the majority of the project.

And so, we come to the real meat of this. The Adobe campaign image seems to be a case of remarkable coincidence, and perhaps Adobe had a point: if the concept was lost works of art, the Rembrandt painting is a prime candidate and thus likely to pop up more than once. But at the same time, the very concept of the commissioned art, the idea of using stock images — the essence of the art — seem to be present in the second version. This presents an interesting question, one with far broader implications and consequences than a single image. Is there a responsibility in art to know the repertoire well enough to avoid accidents such as this? Or, if I put it in a more moderate framing: is there a responsibility to be inquisitive enough to investigate and ensure one is not inadvertently copying another's work, or at the very least, the essence of their work?

Even if this had not been a coincidence, if Adobe had seen it and had paid someone to do a similar thing, is that wrong? After all, we as photographers copy lighting setups, we copy post-processing techniques, we buy actions and presets to duplicate the work of others, and we often find inspiration in concepts and themes created by photographers who have come before us. Stravinsky, the man whose work was a bombshell that single-handedly brought music into the modern era, famously said: "good artists copy; great artists steal." Now, he wasn't advocating theft of work; he would have certainly condemned something like Melania Trump's speech plagiarism. What he was advocating is a savvy awareness of the fact that what has been will be again and the great artist knows what bits of the past to pick from and incorporate into the present. So much of this is a question of timing. 

There's a famous scene in "The Untouchables" in which Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) engages in a shootout while a baby in a carriage rolls down a flight of steps in grave danger. The scene is tense, scary, and impressively effective. It's also completely lifted from "The Battleship Potemkin." (Beware that there's a fair amount of violence in both clips.)

​So, why did no one cry foul? Well, for one, the films are separated by 62 years; they weren't competing with one another. Moreover, it's a homage to one of the greatest films in history. Lastly, the scene is an element of a larger work; it's not the foundation upon which it rests. 

Let's look at a clear example of plagiarism. Below is "Adversity," by Fstoppers writer Robert Baggs. And below that is "End of Days," by Luke Strothman, which was undoubtedly taken from Baggs' concept.

"Adversity," used with permission of Robert Baggs.

While Strothman's image is his own in the sense that he manipulated the camera controls and took it himself, I don't think anyone will argue where the idea came from. In this case, the theft of the idea is clear. But sadly, it's not illegal. Sure, we can shame those who steal ideas, we can denounce their work, we can shun them from the community, but legal recourse does not exist. 

Now, let's return to the Rembrandt, because whatever it is, it's not a case of the above. If you asked a museum curator to make a list of the top ten lost works of arts, I guarantee you the Rembrandt would be near the top. It should be unsurprising that the advertising agency chose it, and in that sense, there is no controversy. What threw me off is what I discussed in comparing the two films above: the timing. 62 years between works is far different than 6 months.

When I began my doctoral work, I didn't just begin writing my research. In fact, I didn't even think about my own work for two months. Instead, I scoured academia for every thread that was even tangentially related to my work, not only to build upon what had been done, but to also ensure that what I was doing was original and thus worthwhile both to myself and to the collective body of knowledge. If you open any doctoral thesis ever published, you'll see evidence of such work right at the beginning: the review of literature. 

Now, am I saying that the advertising agency should have embarked on some epic saga to the far reaches of the Internet to ensure that indeed, their concept and execution were original and not impinging upon the work of another? No, of course not. No one has time for that, unless this is their life for the next three years (i.e. a doctorate). But is a cursory examination in order? Well, that depends. 

To me, this sort of thing comes down to a question of intent and competition. We all copy to varying degrees, but rarely do we intend to cause damage in doing so. Nor do we often compete with the originator in doing so. It's when one (or both) of these two lines is crossed that we've gone afoul. 

What are your thoughts on this? When we do something highly specialized, do we have a responsibility to make an effort to check that it hasn't been done before? Let us know in the comments.

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

Log in or register to post comments

I guess the 99.9% of landscape photographs taken are somebody else's idea since they took it first and we cannot take the same photograph?

Of course you can take the same photograph. This isn't a black and white issue, but rather a question of where one draws the line.

I think the difference is that nature provides you about 80% of the overall idea, beauty, composition, etc compared to a photographer who is literally working with a blank canvas of ideas and crafting pretty much everything from nothing. I agree though, landscape photographers seem to rip off locations down to the exact platform they stand on but they tend to get a free pass because the subject matter is nature itself.

This happens all the way through the history of the visual arts...artists sometimes deliberately lifting ideas and/or imagery...other times arriving at the same idea via different pathways and cultural motifs and without artists having seen their "imitators" works. This, in part, led to the many "neo xxxx" art movements.
One of Post Modernism's basic tenets was that it's all been done before, there's nothing new under the sun ergo it was OK to reinterpret, reuse, appropriate ideas and actual fact it was encouraged and backed by philosophical dialogue.

You'll never take the same photograph with landscape photography, because the light, weather, and landscape conditions are constantly changing.

At this point, humanity has photographed the most beautiful locations on Earth. But the location itself isn't what separates two landscape photographs; it's the patience, persistence, and planning of the photographers.

Ansel Adams didn't discover Yosemite. He's known for his photographs of the location because he *lived there*. He was there shooting every day, to the point of missing the birth of his children.

You're not ripping off Adams when you take a picture of half dome, even from the same spot with the same composition. But your picture probably won't be as good either, because you're only there for one moment in time. Adams was there for so many moments in time, and he picked the most beautiful moment to publish.

This happens all the way through the history of the visual arts...artists sometimes deliberately lifting ideas and/or imagery...other times arriving at the same idea via different pathways and cultural motifs and without artists having seen their "imitators" works. This, in part, led to the many "neo xxxx" art movements.
One of Post Modernism's basic tenets was that it's all been done before, there's nothing new under the sun ergo it was OK to reinterpret, reuse, appropriate ideas and actual fact it was encouraged and backed by philosophical dialogue.

You can take the same photograph, just dont make the same photograph....dude im my home town took photos of local doors and put out a book of them, been done to death, but what ya going to do.

How about this... few years back Leonardo D. shared his Watchtower of Turkey - Masterfully edited and scored. Seen and admired by millions.

Few days ago, Rhode picked some kid to win their young filmmaker competition. The video is a shameless copy (albeit nowhere near as good as the original) - 5 seconds into watching it I had my "oh $hit, what a ripoff!" moment.

When I pointed it out, the kid rambled that his is a "story" while the original is a "travel" video. Utter BS.

I just watched both films and besides the editing style and the voice over, I wouldn't say they are THAT different. I'm sure there are clips like this in many artsy movies (I can't name any off the top of my head) and the original video you cited is probably not the first to do this.

Well, maybe it's because I've spent more time than I want to admit watching the original, along with BTS and interviews. But to me it's impossible not to spot the near identical focus on transitions, the pace, and the actual scenes... like the prayer beads in hands, the pigeons, the soccer, the violin, the icecream cone, the food carvings, the flag and books, the hyper lapse around buildings and roof patterns, the candles, the eyes, etc. Even the score/melody are impossibly "similar" with pacing and ramping that are spaced in the same pattern.

I'm probably coming off as if I'm on a witch hunt here, but this isn't just a "coincidence" as the copycat claims. Just my opinion, albeit a strong one, of course ;)

Comon guys, both videos as part of a style of videos which have been around for almost decades ... when I see one of those I think of "The wonderful world of Amelie", which was the first time I saw something like this...

and especially young people at the beginning of their careers should be deeply inspired and try to emulate their inspiration to learn how to achieve these kind of results and THEN develop their own style.

I think you're overstating the coincidence for several reasons. 1. The original painted work is from one of those famous painters who has become a household name. 2. Theres an existing public fascination with the work and the historical circumstances surrounding it 3. Its a work that doesn't include any elements that aren't recreatable within stock libraries without extreme alterations, (I.E it makes it easy to show how the piece came together in a shortish video)

The space between the two in terms of time frame though, is certainly cause for suspicion

Check out this 4 part video, great watch and speaks about this debate

I think every creative industry suffers from idea overlap, and you will always get conflicts. I used to write topical jokes and sketches for the radio and often there were very similar ideas thought of independently, or I'd see jokes very similar to some I'd written on totally unconnected topical TV shows - when you have a group of people working with the same inputs, the same output isn't so unlikely.

I think that element of 'same inputs' is important though - in your first example two artists had the same inputs; stock photography and classic paintings. That the same well known painting and same stock images are used isn't completely unexpected when you're both in that area. Two photographers finding similar shots in the same location isn't that surprising. But the idea that two people independently thought of a man in a suit with a gas mask at a desk with umbrella and light streaks... yeah unless that's spoofing something I'm unaware of, it's a clear copy from one to the other.

But even 'free form work' like that can have similar time/technology 'inputs' resulting in coincidental ideas.The history of invention has numerous cases of people coming up with similar discoveries around the same time, music and art have similar works and developments very near each other - as technology changes and makes new things possible, creative types try new things with it, and gain inspiration from those around.

I think works should be suitably different or with a different objective than the original piece, but ultimately if you build a reputation as a 'creative' it's not a big deal if something overlaps your ideas. You'll always have more.

Sometimes people can really come up with similar ideas without being influenced by another artist. I was on the receiving end of this with my Taser Photoshoot series I did a few years ago when people claimed that I ripped off the movie poster for a movie called Nymphomaniac.

I had never heard of that movie and those movie poster never came across my desk but I do agree that on the surface the photos do look similar. As Alex points out, I think it's easy to take a relatively common idea (portraits of people making strange expressions) and have them turn out looking like someone else's idea of strange portraits.

One would say that Alex's argument that it is the release time that makes this Adobe case so suspicious, but again, if I look at my own situation, my Stun Gun portrait idea was manifested in 2012 but only executed and published in 2014. The nympho movie was released in 2013 so one could easily say that this points back to me stealing their idea which of course I did not.

It's a pretty interesting topic about creativity, original ideas, and how certain things in nature gravitate towards predictable outcomes. I honestly think this happens a lot in modern pop music even when people try to claim that some 40 year old producer of someone like Taylor Swift MUST HAVE KNOWN about some obscure song from the 60s and blatantly ripped it off to produce a modern day hit. I really think if you boil it down, there are only so many memorable riffs and compositions in the western scale that your Stairway to Heavens and Stay With Mes are bound to happen even by those completely isolated from the originals (bad examples, I do think those artists were influenced by the originals but you get my point).

You're example with the yellow sparks is a good example of why I think it should be cool to "copy" work as a derivative since I actually like the bottom image more.

Hey Alex, would like to send you an email, is there a way to contact you? Thanks, k

Wait! You didn't call Goodby Silverstein and Partners to ask them how this happened? But why?

Here's my coincidence story. I made a music video with a young guy, doing a song named Tattoo that he had written some two years earlier. When it came time to shoot the lead break, he could not remember the notes. I shot several takes and put them together in an multi level overlay to get the right notes at the right time. In the final days of the edit, Keith urban posted a video for his song "Somewhere in my Car" I have attached some screen shots of his video and mine. So similar, almost the same !!!!

My Video:

Around 3:00
His Video:

Around 2:55

PS: I have just realised that next coincidence !! Both around the same time !!!

Sadly this happens more than you know.
Even in the world of street photography, there are people winning awards on the backs of someone else's work.

I've witnessed this first hand and been shown the original work and the derivative work by the "author".
The "author" claimed in his arrogance that most people wouldn't even know the original, so what's the big deal?

I find the work of plagiarists like this both unimaginative but also totally unethical.
If art to you means coping someone else's work and claiming it is your own, then shame on you.

Mr. Cooke, I'm gonna be literal and answer your question: NO! Artists do not have a "responsibility" to check if another artist has already done something. As long as you're not deliberately copying another's work, of course.

And 'scuse me but what an un-artistic concept. I'm gonna shoot this sunset. No, wait... someone's already done it so I won't. Huh?