The LaBeouf Scandal: Why You Should Not Plagiarize

Written by Cynthia Trinh

Actor Shia LaBeouf has been under a lot of controversy lately.  In fact, it’s pretty clear that the actor is hated by many people now, especially by artists who are tired of his lame excuses for blatant plagiarism.  LaBeouf claims that his bizarre behavior is all one gigantic “metamodernist” “performance art” piece to show how the Internet and social media has created a society where everything is stolen and unoriginal.  LaBeouf may have a point (aside from his extreme way of trying to prove his point), but at the end of the day, LaBeouf committed unlawful copyright infringement.  Furthermore, I don’t buy his argument that this was all a “meta-modernist” performance art piece.  And even if we believed him, his argument is flawed – there is a huge difference between sharing something on the Internet and committing blatant plagiarism.



It all began when LaBeouf created a short film titled “” and released it at the Cannes Film Festival on May 18, 2012.  The film received critical acclaim and positive reviews.  No one had any idea that the film “” was completely ripped-off from graphic novel “Justin M. Damiano”, written and drawn by graphic artist Daniel Clowes.  It wasn’t until December 16, 2013, when the film was released on the Internet, that people realized the striking similarities between “” and “Justin M. Damiano.”  Within hours, the Internet went into an uproar, citing clear evidence that LaBeouf’s film was completely copied from Clowes’ graphic novel.  The script was copied word-for-word, as well as the visuals and narrative structure.  Clowes’ cult-like fans were really pissed off and took to the Internet (especially Twitter) to voice their anger.  LaBeouf was accused of plagiarizing Clowes’ work.

Soon afterward, in a series of tweets on Twitter (LaBeouf’s primary way of communication throughout this entire controversy), LaBeouf offered a weird apology for copying Clowes’ work and not crediting him. LaBeouf tweeted:

“Copying isn’t particularly creative work. Being inspired by someone else’s idea to produce something new and different IS creative work.”
“In my excitement and naiveté as an amateur filmmaker, I got lost in the creative process and neglected to follow proper accreditation”
“Im embarrassed that I failed to credit @danielclowes for his original graphic novella Justin M. Damiano, which served as my inspiration”
“I was truly moved by his piece of work & I knew that it would make a poignant & relevant short. I apologize to all who assumed I wrote it.”
“I deeply regret the manner in which these events have unfolded and want @danielclowes to know that I have a great respect for his work.”
“I f*cked up.”

It gets even weirder – LaBeouf commissioned a skywritten apology to Clowes,  saying “I am sorry Daniel Clowes” and then tweeted a photo of it, along with the message:

– vapor floating in the atmosphere
– remote servers used to SHARE DATA

Skwritten apology

via Business Insider

Funny thing is, the skywritten apology was made in Los Angeles, and Clowes lives in San Francisco, so there was no way Clowes could have seen it in person.  Even more twisted is LaBeouf’s series of apologies thereafter, which all copied apologizes said and/or written by other famous apologizers, including Mark Zuckerberg, Russell Crowe, Alec Baldwin, Eliot Spitzer, Shepard Fairey, and Tiger Woods.  LaBeouf was not only copying other people’s content, he was copying his apologies for copying other people’s content!

You would think that after all this, LaBeouf would stop plagiarizing.  But no, he didn’t stop.  He continued his string of plagiarism by announcing on Twitter his next project called “Daniel Boring,” a complete rip-off of Clowes’ work titled “David Boring.”  Lawyers for Clowes sent a cease-and-desist letter, calling LaBeouf out of control and demanding that he stop this obsessive copying of Clowes’ work.  LaBeouf, of course, took pictures of the cease-and-desist letter and posted them on Twitter.  Makes you wonder if he is taking all this seriously.

At this point, everyone is thinking that LaBeouf has completely lost his mind and gone to crazy-town.  He claimed that the Twitter hashtag “#stopcreating” that he used in all of his Twitter apologies was a project that he produced along with several other artists, including Luke Turner, David Ayer, and Kenneth Goldsmith.  LaBeouf tweeted a picture of his explanation titled “Twitter As Art”, which stated in part:

“Performance art has been a way of appealing directly to a large public, as well as shocking audiences into reassessing their own notions of art and its relation to culture. My twitter “@thecampaignbook” is metamodernist performance art…
My use of Twitter started a broad cultural discussion that needs to be had about plagiarism in the digital age & celebrity/social media absurdity.”

LaBeouf explained that we are becoming a “cut and paste” culture, using the popular social media platform Tumblr as an example of how everything we see on the Internet today is unoriginal and just a copy of something else.  Whether we believe LaBeouf is a question that we all have different opinions on (although it seems like the majority of the world does not believe him).  But let’s just assume that LaBeouf is telling the truth and that this was all performance art.  That doesn’t change the fact that he does a terrible job of trying to prove his point.  First, he is not original, and second, his argument is severely flawed.

LaBeouf may think his “performance art” is really original (unlike all the things we see on the Internet, as LaBeouf argues), but actor Joaquin Phoenix pulled a similar stunt five years ago when he pretended to give up acting in pursuit of a rapping career and starred in the mockumentary “I’m Still Here” directed by Casey Affleck.  Phoenix kept up the charade for an entire year until he went on the David Letterman show to explain his crazy behavior.  LaBeouf’s “performance art” is not so original after all, as he claims it to be.

It is true that social media has made it a lot easier for people to steal content and pass it off as their own.  Take for example, the recent lawsuit between photographer Daniel Morel and media licensors Getty Images (Getty) and Agence France-Presse (AFP).  Morel’s images of the 2010 Haiti earthquake were stolen off Twitter and unlawfully disseminated by Getty and AFP to many different news outlets.  The Internet has created a vast number of problems for copyright owners and it has become more difficult to protect their work.  However, what LaBeouf did was completely different.  LaBeouf was trying to make the point that nothing is original anymore and everything is just a copy of something else.  But there is a clear distinction between “reposting” or “retweeting” something and copying extensive material word-for-word.  LaBeouf used Tumblr as an example of how everything is just a copy of something else, but that is why Tumblr is unique and distinctive: it is a social network that is specifically designed to allow people to share each other’s content.  Users of Tumblr do not share content and claim it to be their own, in fact, Tumblr usually shows the original source of the content.  LaBeouf took extensive material from others and claimed it to be his own.  Reposting or retweeting something is much different than making an entire short film that was copied verbatim from copyrighted material.

Social media has made it easier for people to share their content, but that does not give people a license to steal that content and pass it off as their own.  When we share something on social media, we want it to be shared by others to promote our work, or to spread information, but by posting something on social media we are not giving others an exclusive license to use that work any way they want! LaBeouf missed that point entirely in his  bizarre “performance art.” LaBeouf also fails to see that nothing is purely original: every idea is based upon another idea, and that is why copyright law exists.  We want to protect expression, but our laws specifically leave ideas in the public domain because we want others to build upon our findings and works.

I think everyone is tired of LaBeouf’s crazy antics, but it doesn’t seem like he will be stopping any time soon.  He just showed up to a press conference of his latest film “Nymphomaniac” in a brown paper bag around his head saying “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE.”

Image courtesy of

About the author

Cynthia Trinh

Cindy Trinh is an intellectual property attorney based in New York City and Contributor to She is a Creative Relations Agent for the international company Production Paradise, the premiere international resource and online directory for the visual media industry specializing in commercial, advertising, and fashion. She connects the world's best photographers and filmmakers with agencies and magazines around the globe. Cindy is also an Assistant Manager to musician Earl Slick, the guitarist for rock legend David Bowie for the last 40 years. Slick has collaborated with John Lennon, Yoko Ono, The Ramones, The Rolling Stones, and Robert Smith, and was the guitarist for New York Dolls, to name just a few. Cindy is passionate about photography and is heavily involved in New York's art scene. She is the Social Media & Marketing Coordinator for The New York Photo Review, a publication of critical reviews and listings of fine art photography shows in New York. She curates content and photography for all the social media sites, writes about the latest developments in art and photography, and attends gallery openings and events to cultivate relationships with galleries and artists.

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