Self Plagiarism And The Creative Process

from the but-is-it-infringement? dept

Last year, we had a post looking at the question of joke “stealing” and if it should be seen as infringement. Basically, there are tons of comics who are known for “stealing” the jokes of other comics, and there’s even been some questions about trying to copyright jokes. The whole thing seems ridiculous, frankly. The power of a joke is rarely in the joke itself, but the delivery — and you can’t copyright that. Plus, there seem to be social measures in place to deal with “joke theft.” Comics who are regularly caught doing it may have their reputations damaged, as was the case with Carlos Mencia last year.

But there’s even more to it than that. In an interesting post on his blog, Scott Adams writes about how he (not for the first time) was caught drawing a nearly identical Dilbert comic strip to one he had done in the past. He delves a bit into his creative process to explain how it works, noting that there are a ton of ideas flowing through his head at once and he just has to reach out and grab from that mass of ideas:

For me, ideas stream through my head at a frantic pace. I feel like a bear trying to grab a salmon. If my paw misses its target, that salmon is gone for good. I don’t dwell on it. I just lunge for the next salmon. I think people who have fewer thoughts per hour have time to let them settle in and form memories. It’s just a theory.

That’s likely true for many creative folks, including stand-up comics. As such, the ideas that you have in your head, and the ones that you hear and see from others end up getting mixed up in that mass of “idea salmon.” As such, it shouldn’t be surprising or scandalous or bad when someone ends up coming up with a similar (or even almost identical) joke or idea to someone else. It’s just part of the creative process at work. It’s not “stealing” and it’s not “infringement.” It’s just a recognition of the creative process that involves a large number of ideas flowing around that a content creator tries to bring together in some sort of useful or interesting manner.

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Comments on “Self Plagiarism And The Creative Process”

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Drew says:

In my opinion, there’s a difference between what Carlos “Ned Holness” Mencia does and coming up with a similar or identical joke by chance or inadvertently. I’ve read allegations that he did certain jokes word for word. I also believe I read that some of his jokes were from a comedian who died young. It’s true that his delivery could never be as good as the original comedians, but if the material he stole is good, that probably doesn’t matter as much. Those people probably spent countless hours toiling over that material, and I’m sure none of them are thrilled to have Mr. Mencia regurgitate them.

And I really don’t get the feeling that Mr. Mencia cares at all about how he is perceived amongst comedians. He’s making millions off of his show on Comedy Central, where people who are ignorant of the comedy circuit support him without knowing the shameful details of his past.

I don’t think copyrighting anything is the answer, much less jokes… but I feel like there should be something preventing him from having all of the success he’s had. Maybe the natural order of the universe will balance it out. I won’t count on it, though.

I will say that as a Latin-American, I am ashamed to see him represent my ethnicity on television.

Eclecticdave (profile) says:

Re: Re:

While I agree that good material does help a mediocre comedian (I’m not calling Mencia mediocre – I’ve never seen him), I would argue that the success of the best comedians comes from the performance far more than the material.

Some comedians (Tommy Cooper for example) can tell “Knock-Knock” jokes and make them funny. By the same token a rubbish comedian can easily ruin the funniest joke in the world.

So if another comedian uses a good comedian’s material, that hardly affects the good comedian’s success, which does not rely on exclusive material – in fact it could actually help the original comedian – if word gets out that Mencia is reusing material from (say) Peter Kay’s act – wouldn’t that make you wan#t to see Peter Kay*?

* Kay is a popular UK comedian – not sure if you’ve heard of him in the US.

Tracy Coenen (user link) says:

I've done it

On several occasions during the writing of both of my books, I would start writing about a topic, and pause, thinking maybe I already covered it. Sure enough, I’d find a chapter in which I already covered the topic, and it was scary how similar the writings were. I’m only talking a few paragraphs each, but almost exact same phraseology and buzz words used. I scare myself sometimes.

Pope Ratzo (profile) says:

How is a joke different from a dance step? Why is it stealing when someone tells someone else’s joke, but not if someone does an identical dance step?

I can almost understand the notion that a formula for a wonderful, unique, say, window cleaner or cancer drug should be protected long enough for the innovator to be rewarded (I said innovator not “company who bought (or stole) the formula from the innovator”.

But if we’re going to trivialize the notion of what constitutes “protected intellectual property” so that it covers jokes, it does nothing but point out just how ridiculous it is that any art should be copyrighted.

The most obvious example to me is pop music. Most pop music is little more than a trivial chord progression over a beat. To call led zeppelin thieves for coming up with a song that’s the same as one written by some old blues guy is silly, especially since the old blues guy probably got it from someone before him, maybe slaves working in the field.

The bigger question is why should someone who plays pop music for a living have any expectation of great wealth? And why should someone who wrote a hit song in 1972 expect to be rich for the rest of his life off of the royalties from that one 3 minute opus? Ultimately, copyright probably does more to discourage creativity than to encourage it, which was the original purpose.

tobias robison (profile) says:


It seems likely that Mozart also “plagiarised” himself. It’s easy to find cases where he uses a remarkably similar theme to another piece, and develops it in similar ways. There’s no particular reason why he should have been aware of this when he did it; if he was aware, he could have saved himself a lot of compositional effort by quoting more directly.

David Fedoruk says:

Re: self-plagiarism

Tobias, of course Mozart copied himself! That is the way music works (at least Western European Music — which is what all of this including pop music is) is that you build on what you have done before. If you will notice that even when Mozart copied himself, he did it just a little bit differently, refined it. Keeping and reusing a good idea is how music gets better and how Mozart (somewhat like the Energizer Bunny) just kept getting better and better and better … etc….

Copying a good idea is not bad, building on that idea with some of your own is even better. (By copying I don’t mean copying note for note someone elses work, I mean copying what or how they accomplished something in music) This is how music changes and manages to speak and current and future generations.


Nathania Johnson (profile) says:

Yes and no

Adams has a point, and I think for most comedians and other creative types, this holds true. I’ve dabbled a bit in screenwriting and filmmaking, and it’s amazing how people who have absolutely no contact with each other can come up with strikingly similar ideas, even at the same time.

But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been legitimate cases of idea/story/screenplay stealing in Hollywood.

I have no idea what Mencia did. I don’t find him funny, so I don’t care.

DP (user link) says:

Plagiarising self.

I completely get this situation with Scott Adams. I run an online game that has been around for 10 years (see url) that we constantly add new features to.

I will often find myself thinking “It would be a great idea to add xyz to the game” then dive into the code and realize that I already added it 5 years earlier.

How many cartoons has Scott Adams done by now? The only surprise here is that this doesn’t happen much more often.

Walter says:

Self Plage

Close to home, My Engineer Dad in the 30’s was working on
a rotary cylinder for a car engine completely unaware of
people in Germany with the exact same idea.
As a comedian, I remember helping write a take off of
Gandhi singing Sammy Davis Jr.’s “Candy Man” and having the
same idea appear the next day on T.V.
“Who can skip breakfast…lunch and dinner too…
separate the English from my friends the Hindu…
The Gandhi Man.
Politically incorrect and trite, but parallel ideas happen
all the time.

Stop Plagiarism (user link) says:

Stop Plagiarism


G. Murugesan and Dr C. Chellappan Plagiarism Case – Anna University, India

We were informed that a paper recently published contains plagiarized texts from other already published articles. Here’s the details:

Paper Title: An Economical Model for Optimal Distribution of Loads for Grid Applications
Journal Reference: (IJCNS) International Journal of Computer and Network Security, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp 62-66, October 2009
Authors: G. Murugesan and Dr C. Chellappan
Authors’ Affiliation: Department of Computer Science and Engineering Anna University, Chennai 600 025, India
Paper Link:

While we went through the paper (not completely), we found that texts at different location of the paper were copied word by word from the following listed articles (by the way, you can check yourself, do the search on Google):

1. Multi-Source Grid Scheduling for Divisible Loads by TG Robertazzi (2006)

2. QoS Guided Min-Min Heuristic for Grid Task Scheduling by HE Xiaoshan

3. A static jobs scheduling for independent jobs in Grid Environment by using Fuzzy C-Mean and Genetic algorithms by S Lorpunmanee (2006)

4. Grid Scheduling Divisible Loads from Multiple Sources via Linear Programming by M.A. Moges (2004)

5. Resource-Aware Distributed Scheduling Strategies for Large-Scale Computational Cluster/Grid Systems by S Viswanathan (2007)

6. Divisible Load Scheduling for Grid Computing by D Yu (2003)

We stop reviewing this article at page number 2, column 1, as the amount of copied texts is ENORMOUS!!!! A REAL SHAME!!!

Due to limited resources we won’t be able to go through the entire paper which is 5 pages long!! So definitely, there may be other people works that these people have plagiarized!! We will be grateful if someone can check this and report to us so that we can update this post for all our readers.

We further noticed that they published a similar paper, probably with a 80%-90% similarities in the content (trying to hit 2 birds with 1 stone):

Paper Title: An Economic Allocation of Resources for Multiple Grid Applications
Journal Reference: Proceedings of the World Congress on Engineering and Computer Science 2009 Vol I WCECS 2009, October 20-22, 2009, San Francisco, USA
Authors: G. Murugesan and Dr C. Chellappan

These 2 authors can be contacted at: and


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