Recently, Goodby Silverstein & Partners changed their logo. Shortly thereafter, someone came forward via Agency Spy indicating the logo was essentially a direct copy of another company’s mark. It should be mentioned the original logo was created a century ago. Nevertheless, people were quick to accuse GS&P of plagiarism. This ugly debate led Rich Silverstein to issue a memo stating that the “appropriation” was “100% intentional.” That memo found itself on, you guessed it, Agency Spy and, as one might imagine, a slew of mostly critical opinions followed.

Plagiarism is a hot button topic in Adland. I’ve covered it numerous times on this blog, including this post about my favorite campaign in 2010, which, apparently, had been plagiarized. The same thing happened when I chose my favorite campaign of 2011. Ironic history repeating itself when I talk of plagiarism.

Wikipedia’s definition of plagiarism, which in turn is ‘plagiarized’ from “other dictionaries” is as follows: the “wrongful appropriation,” “close imitation,” or “purloining and publication” of another author’s “language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions,” and the representation of them as one’s own original work.

By that definition the logo was plagiarized. But then things get interesting. Wikipedia states, “with the boom of the modernist and postmodern movements in the 20th century, this practice has been heightened as a central and representative artistic device,” concluding that “plagiarism remains tolerated by 21st century artists.”

Sigh. This is a tricky debate on so many levels, many of them covered in the myriad (mostly mean) comments following the Agency Spy posts as well as my own.

While I agree with Richard Silverstein that “sampling” has become a big part of popular culture (and this argument is not to be taken lightly) I also agree that his agency copied. And as we were all taught in second grade, copying is wrong.

So, what’s a girl to do, especially if that girl is a copywriter looking at old advertising annuals for inspiration or a creative director looking at work?

I think the key is what was added or changed to build on the original idea. If sampled music becomes part of a new thing it’s not plagiarism, like when Run DMC appropriated the lyrics and licks to Aerosmith’s Walk this Way. (That Aerosmith was in on the remix further diminishes any argument against it.) Yet, when Lady GaGa channeled Madonna in her hit, Born this Way it felt like a shameless rip off. In this context the difference is obvious. One is okay and the other not so much.

Advertising (and design) is another animal, however. Are not the white lines grayer than with art? I still think my “building on” theory applies, which suggests Goodby crossed the line…unless, of course, you believe in a statute of limitations. Like I said: tricky.