What's the difference between plagiarism, parody, and homage?

This has been bothering me for a while now.

The main example that got me thinking about it was Captain America 1. In this film, they ripped off a bunch of scenes from Indiana Jones series, from motorcycle chases, melting Nazi’s, to flying a plane off a larger plane. Roger Ebert, in his review, called it an homage to older action adventure films. In the Wayan’s brothers “Somethingsomething Movie” they often use parody, but in many of their films they use the exact same dialogue as the original.

Another two films that kinda bug me are Pulp Fiction, that copies almost exactly the “sexy woman talking into a microphone” as The Warriors, and the final fight in the Matrix, which is almost a scene-for-scene imitation of the final fight in Fist of Legend. Part of the advertising for the Psycho remake bragged that they recreated the shower scene exactly as the original.

So what’s the difference?

Ok did a little research:

Plagiarism: to copy something for the purpose of claiming credit.
Parody: to copy something for the purpose of comedy.
Homage: to copy something for the purpose of showing respect.

Tina Fey’s imitation of Sarah Palin, verbatim, to run for governor: plagiarism.
Tina Fey’s imitation of Sarah Palin, verbatim, but with laugh track: parody.
Tina Fey’s imitation of Sarah Palin, verbatim, but saying “Watch my Sarah Palin impression!” first: homage.

Sounds right?

Let’s take as an example Dave Sim, in Cerebus the Aardvark, and his character “Captain Cockroach,” an almost dead-on visual ringer for Marvel Comics’ “Wolverine.” Sim put CC on the cover of his comic book several times, and had him as a major character in the book.

Marvel sent him a cease-and-desist letter.

Later, perhaps hypocritically, they introduced a minor character named S’ym, who was a very distorted caricature of Cerebus the Aardvark.

Sim screamed bloody murder, but he didn’t comprehend the key point: Marvel changed the physical appearance of the character, sufficiently to make it different, distinct, and easily distinguished. No reader, seeing the two side by side, could possibly mistake one for the other.

That wasn’t the case with CC. Sim overstepped the boundaries, loose as they might be, and went from homage to, if not plagiarism, unfair use.

Parody is also subject to the rules of “brevity.” There have been tons of X-Men parodies, but they haven’t gone on and on for dozens or hundreds of issues. Once a parody starts to become a “regular series,” it’s harder to defend.

Plagiarism is when the viewer or reader is supposed to think it’s an original work. Parody/homage is when the viewer or reader is supposed to recognize it as a version of the earlier work. (Indeed, that’s generally the primary point of the parody/homage.)

Plagiarism is breaking an academic rule in place to make sure you do your own busy work

Parody is humorously copying

Homage is a love letter to whoever you’re copying

The size of your legal team?

Well, no.

Tina Fey’s famous Sarah Palin impression largely involved dressing up like Palin and mimicking her speaking style. Imitating someone’s hairstyle, fashion choices, and mannerisms isn’t plagiarism, although I guess if Fey had seriously tried to pass herself off as Palin then it could be some sort of fraud or identity theft.

By “verbatim” I’m guessing you mean Tina Fey imitating Sarah Palin and repeating the exact words of some speech or interview given by Palin, but IIRC that’s not what Fey did. Fey’s performance usually involved saying things that resembled things Palin had really said, but were exaggerated for comedic effect. For instance, Palin said “You can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska” while Fey-as-Palin said “I can see Russia from my house!” Had Tina Fey ever presented one of Palin’s speeches as her own writing – even if it was for an SNL sketch – then that would be plagiarism. If she used a Palin speech without permission then that might also be copyright violation even if she acknowledged she hadn’t written it herself, although fair use does allow some limited use of copyrighted material for the purpose of commentary or parody.

Just saying “Watch my impression!” doesn’t make something an homage, either. It’s hard to imagine Fey ever doing an impression of Palin that was seriously intended to show respect for Palin, and many actual homages don’t involve explicitly telling the audience “This is my tribute to [whoever]”.

Well you can refer to the 1988 Supreme Court case of Hustler Magazine v Falwell, where Jerry Falwell sued over an ad that featured his likeness that Hustler claimed was just a parody. The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, deemed the ad to be parody.

It agreed with the trial court when it found that the Hustler ad parody could not “reasonably be understood as describing actual facts about [respondent] or actual events in which [he] participated.”
The Court of Appeals interpreted the jury’s finding to be that the ad parody “was not reasonably believable,”

So there are two benchmarks to help you decide if something is a parody or not.

I think you’ve misunderstood what Hustler Magazine v. Falwell was about. I don’t believe there was ever any question as to whether the fake ad featuring Falwell in Hustler was a parody, and Falwell wasn’t suing for plagiarism (which isn’t grounds for a lawsuit anyway) or copyright violation (which is). He sued for libel and emotional distress.

The fake ad was found not to be libelous because it was too absurd to be believed (it depicted Falwell as an alcoholic who had sex with his mother), not just because it was a parody. The lower court did award Falwell damages for emotional distress, but Larry Flynt appealed this and the Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the First Amendment protected satire of public figures. IANAL, but had Falwell been a private citizen and not a celebrity then the court presumably would have found in his favor on at least the emotional distress and possibly the libel as well.

Tina Fey’s performance as Sarah Palin on SNL resulted in some people believing that Palin really did claim that she could see Russia from her house, but “I can see Russia from my house!” is still a parody of Palin’s actual statement about Russia being visible from parts of Alaska.

The Onion is in a heap of trouble, then, as a great many of their parodies have been completely believable! :wink:

No, I understand what the suit was about. You’re right that this case wasn’t a question of “is this plagiarism, parody, or homage?” nor does it necessarily differentiate between the three. But the case does make clear at least two definitions of what parody is or could be. So I thought I’d use it as way set parameters on one aspect of the conversation.

That sounds to me like an issue of trademark. If Cockroach was almost indistinguishable visually from Wolverine, then one can imagine a customer of Wolverine comic books glancing at the cover, mis-identifying it, and buying it, to the harm of both Marvel’s finances and their reputation. The appearance of Wolverine on the front of a comic book identifies it as a Marvel product.

Also relevant to this discussion, but separate from trademark considerations, is copyright. If I’m responsible for writing an article on some topic, and start by saying “So-and-so said it best on this subject:”, and then then copy verbatim so-and-so’s entire article, I have not committed plagiarism, as I have given credit to the original author. I have, however, violated that author’s copyright (at least, if I haven’t purchased or otherwise obtained the author’s permission). I could stay clear of both plagiarism and copyright infringement, if I instead quoted only short excerpts (exactly how long is acceptable is vague in the law), and cited them appropriately.

I don’t think the case was attempting to define parody at all. The part you quoted looks like an explanation for why this particular parody didn’t meet the standard for libel.

That something could not reasonably be mistaken for a description of actual facts about a real person doesn’t make much sense as a definition of parody. By that standard most works of fantasy and science fiction are parodies, even if they’re original stories that are intended seriously.

The Onion is blazing new trails on this front and engage in something there really isn’t a word for yet. What they do is intended to be satire, but the entities they mock are already so ridiculous as to almost be parodies of themselves. Therefore, if an entity feels like it sees itself in an Onion article, it is really the entity’s own fault for encroaching on the territory of the satirist. Before long The Onion will be able to fund itself entirely by suing ridiculous people for plagiarism before even writing an article. And the universe will become just a little bit stranger.

This is pretty much how I’d quickly summarize it, though I don’t think your Fey/Palin examples quite make sense.

Another difficult distinction is between parody and satire; parody is usually understood to be copying something just to be funny, whereas satire, while still funny, is mostly aimed at criticizing the original thing being copied.

The plaintiff’s popularity.

Thinking about this thread I remembered the movie Velvet Goldmine, which references a lot of other works, but for the sake of simplicity I’ll focus on one brief scene. (This clip is pretty tame, but possibly a bit NSFW.) I chose this one in part because it’s actually about a performer borrowing inspiration from another artist.

At the beginning of this clip, a 1970s glam rock character named Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) is talking to his wife (Toni Colette) about an outrageous performance he saw by another musician at a festival the night before. He says “I wish I’d thought of it” and she says “You will, love, you will.” (This exchange is itself a paraphrase of a famous quip James McNeill Whistler made to Oscar Wilde.) It then cuts to a promotional video for Slade’s new song, “The Ballad of Maxwell Demon”. This is an original song written for the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack. It does however bear some resemblance to “All the Young Dudes”, originally written by David Bowie for Mott the Hoople. The Brian Slade character is also pretty obviously based on both Bowie and lesser-known glam rocker Jobriath. So is this plagiarism, parody, or homage?

  1. Plagiarism? IMHO, “The Ballad of Maxwell Demon” isn’t close enough to “All the Young Dudes” to constitute plagiarism. Plagiarism is an ethical issue and not a legal one so there’s perhaps room for debate on this, but it doesn’t sound to me like “The Ballad of Maxwell Demon” directly lifted any significant portion of the music or lyrics to “All the Young Dudes”.

  2. Parody? The song itself doesn’t seem like it’s meant to be funny. I take it to be a sincere attempt at writing a new song that sounds like it could be a 1970s glam rock anthem. The video is a bit silly (I mean, there’s a man painted blue humping a couple of blow up dolls!) so I guess one could argue it’s poking fun at glam rock’s excesses. But within the context of the movie Slade is trying to be provocative and outrageous, and it doesn’t seem like the filmmakers were going for big laughs here.

  3. Homage? Yes. I largely addressed this in #2 above, but Velvet Goldmine is a drama rather than a comedy and the movie seems like it’s trying to recreate rather than lampoon the glam rock era. Most of the other songs in the movie are covers of real songs from the period, and the movie treats all its music pretty seriously. I’d say that “The Ballad of Maxwell Demon” is intended to be imitation as a form of flattery.

For an example of a David Bowie parody, see Flight of the Conchord’s “Bowie’s in Space”. This song is clearly meant to be funny. I’d say it also qualifies as an homage because it seems like the Conchords really know and admire Bowie’s work and aren’t just mocking it, but it’s a comically exaggerated imitation of Bowie’s musical style and his whole spaceman schtick and therefore a parody.

You are massively complicating everything by using movies here.

If moviemaker B gets her hands on a movie made by moviemaker A and then releases it as if B made it herself, that’s plagiarism as well as copyright infringement. If B sells the movie with A’s name still almost certainly copyright infringement but not plagiarism.

If B makes a new movie that looks almost the same as the old movie and uses the same dialog and so on, then things are more complicated. As I understand it, the new movie wouldn’t directly violate the copyright of the old movie, as it’s not a copy. But it is an unauthorized derivative work. So the script writer and the people holding trademarks over the characters would have a case.

An interesting case is the movie Nosferatu, which is based on the Dracula book, but the names were changed. However, the film was found to infringe on the book anyway and all copies had to be destroyed.

But in general you can’t really copyright a type of story or a style. Typically, a homage is copying (some elements of) a style. A parody is also using characters, which normally isn’t allowed, but usually not copying the underlying material verbatim.

So if Tina Fey dresses like Sarah Palin and talks like her that could be an homage. If she dresses and talks like her but in an exaggerated and ridiculous way (which are of course in the eye of the beholder) and calls herself Sarah Palin that would be a parody. If Saturday Night Live shows a recording of Sarah Palin giving a speech, that would be copyright infringement, assuming the recording is copyrighted. If Tina Fey delivers the entire speech (whether looking like Palin or not) that’s probably also copyright infringement. If Fey only says a sentence or two from the speech, that’s ok because it’s the criticism exception. If she does the whole speech as Sarah Palin it could go either way. If done completely straight it would probably be copyright infringement, but it could also still be a parody. Of course Sarah Palin is a real person who is probably not trademarked, unlike the fictional people in most movies.

I would make the following distinctions. They’re not all “copying”.

Plagiarism: to copy something for the purpose of claiming credit.
Parody: to *exaggerate *some aspect of something for the purpose of comedy. Merely copying it wouldn’t be funny.
Homage: to *reinterpret *something for the purpose of showing respect. Usually homage is re-interpreting the original work, although in some cases, like tribute bands, it might be about trying to identically reproduce it.

Although I get that you listed some whimsical examples, Tina Fey did not take Sarah Palin’s words verbatim. In one case, she took a statement (“They’re our next-door neighbors, and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska”) and exaggerated it for comedic effect (“I can see Russia from my house!”). That’s parody.

Copyright law covers both actual copying (e.g. pirated DVDs) and derivative works. IANAL, but unless the movie has fallen into the public domain then reusing the script without the proper permissions would almost certainly be a copyright violation.

It might also be a trademark violation, but many – I’d guess most – movies do not contain trademarked characters. This piece on Forbes.com has more information about the legal protections available for fictional characters. From the link (emphasis added):