5.1 Plagiarism vs Appropriation

4 min readoctober 28, 2020


Sherry Ross

AP Art & Design 🎨

18 resources
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What’s the Difference Between Plagiarism and Appropriation?

This is a tricky concept for people to grasp. As a rule of thumb, a found (re)source image (one you found on the web instead of taking yourself) must be at least 65% changed to be considered an appropriation rather than plagiarism. Artistically, appropriation simply means to take a source image that is not your own and change it SIGNIFICANTLY to suit your own personal vision. Plagiarism means to directly copy something from someone or somewhere else.

Here's an Analogy That Might Help 🤔

For this analogy, let's say you borrow a sweater from a sibling without their permission – that would be plagiarism. You make no changes to it, it is still the same sweater. It might look different on you, people might even think it’s yours, but it’s still your sibling’s sweater, unchanged. Now, suppose you take that same sweater, cut off the arms, and splash paint all over it. Now, it’s YOUR sweater – you’ve changed it from what was their sweater to something new you made. That’s appropriation. I don’t recommend doing this with a sibling’s sweater, but for working with a found source image, it’s GREAT! 🤩 🙌🏽

Well, How About a Visual Example? 🙋🏽‍♀️

Sure! This is the Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci, arguably one of the most famous artworks in the world. It is instantly recognizable. It has been reproduced, written about, studied, and admired all around the world. It is one of the world's most valuable paintings, and nearly six million people a year visit her in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Mona Lisa (La Gioconda), Leonardo Da Vinci, 1503 - 1517

This is “L.H.O.O.Q” by Marcel Duchamp. While there is a minor physical change to the work, there is a huge conceptual impact, which forever changes the work for the viewer.

L.H.O.O.Q, Marchel Duchamp, 1919

“But how?” you might ask “That’s just a tiny mustache and goatee!” You have to understand a few things. The title spells out “Elle a chaud au cul” which translates into “She has a hot a**”. He took the most famous painting in the world, and created a piece mocking how revered it was, and therefore, took on the idea that art is precious. He forever changed how one views the Mona Lisa because once you see his, you will think of it when viewing the original. He’s kind of a character - google his work. You will be glad you did. 😍 🤣 🤓 (art nerd alert)

Here’s another example:

Fairey used the photo he got doing a google image search and created the image on the right. He thought that he changed it enough to count as appropriation. Since he used a credited image without permission, he was sued and had to pay a substantial fine. 😢 💲 Only use royalty-free images (images within the public domain available for use by everyone- they will be marked) as sources for your work. If you can, take your own original source images to work from.

How Can I Properly Use a Source Image?

This is a famous image of Tupac Shakur from Getty Images. They own it. If you want to use it for your work, it costs $175. I am properly crediting it for this example to show you that internet images ARE NOT FREE.
I’ve seen various unauthorized copies of this photo, hundreds of times over the years. If you want to do a drawing or a painting to practice your skills or because you love his music, great! 👍🏽Hang it on your wall or give it to a friend. However, it’s not appropriate to submit as an original work of art for the AP portfolio. 👎🏽
If you take the same photo and think, how can I change this image? For some reason, I thought about putting a Captain Crunch hat on his head to cover his bandana. Then I thought about how else I could change the images I was working with. I wanted the Captain to represent a person of color (POC), so I changed the skin tone and the text tone.
I added Tupac to the slogan because I thought of how many students I’ve had that would love to be “Tupac-a-tized” and instantly have his talent. Then, I added a filter to further change the image. I’m not saying it’s great art, but it is showing a significant change to source images I did not own. It also presents a different reality showing a prominent advertising spokesperson as a POC, which is a powerful message.
Not only did I change the images, but I also showed a purposeful intent to change the messaging sent with it. That is the IDEATION (the idea or thought) behind this piece. For a stand-alone piece, there is probably not enough change in the image. However, if I was using this as part of a larger inquiry exploring “How can a person of color be included in product branding to reach a more diverse market?” or “Would using a person of color as a product spokesperson change perception?” it might work within the larger exploration.
So, when you want to use an image as a source that you didn’t photograph yourself, make sure you are altering the image into a new and DIFFERENT work. AP used to call this changing the “image in the service of a larger personal vision”. You might find this idea useful as we talk about Sustained Investigation (SI) and deal with inquiry in other guides.

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