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Coincidence or plagiarism for Jeff Stahler?

Yesterday’s editorial cartoon by Columbus Dispatch cartoonist Jeff Stahler has a striking similarity to a 2009 New Yorker cartoon by David Sipress (see both below).

Jeff Stahler

New Yorker Cartoon by David Sipress

I asked Jeff for a response to which he’d only say, “my only explaination [sic] is that it’s a coincidence.”

This is the second coincidence this year. Last March, one of his cartoons was found to be very close to a fake headline written by Andy Borowitz which read, “New Study Finds iPad is Cure for Adultery; Owners ?Stop Noticing Other People Altogether“. Jeff’s cartoon caption read, “New study: Smart phone users are less likely to commit adultery, since they?ve stopped noticing others around them.”

Jeff’s editors reviewed the matter and declared they believed it was a coincidence. Here’s what they told Jim Romenesko:

We investigated Mr. Borowitz?s allegation yesterday and today. What we know is that [Dispatch cartoonist] Jeff [Stahler] created the cartoon Wednesday, submitted it Thursday (the same day Borowitz?s piece appeared), and published it Sunday. Jeff was not familiar with Borowitz?s piece until Borowitz himself brought it to our attention. It appears to be a coincidence.

Unlike David Simpson, who was caught lightboxing Jeff MacNelly cartoons with abandon, any of Jeff’s suspected cartoons are drawn in his own style and therefore harder to definitively prove to be cases of plagiarism.

That in mind, here are a couple more cases of similar cartoons between The New Yorker and Jeff’s work that were passed along to me.

Here’s a cartoon by Danny Shanahan that appeared in The New Yorker in 1999.

This Stahler cartoon ran in 2008, a decade later.

This cartoon by Robert Mankoff ran February 9, 2009 in The New Yorker.

Stahler touched on the same theme nine days later on February 18, 2009:

As a general rule, as long as the cartoonist isn’t light-boxing, I try to give them the benefit of the doubt. Even the ones cited above can be excused when looked at individually (the ‘nationalized’ cartoons are easy word gags based on the topic of the day). Collectively, however, the matter gets harder to explain away. Only Jeff knows for sure and the only on-the-record response he’s given me was that “it’s a coincidence.”

Community Comments

#1 Steve Myers
December/6/2011
@ 11:04 am

Alan,

Dispatch Editor Ben Marrison tells me that Stahler has been suspended while the paper looks into this:

http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/mediawire/155006/daily-cartoonist-columbus-dispatch-editorial-cartoons-bear-striking-similarity-to-new-yorkers/

Steve Myers
Poynter.org

#2 Rich Diesslin
December/6/2011
@ 11:38 am

Just a thought to go against the tide a bit. All of these gags are easily attributed to coincidence … they are not the kind of unique humor only one person comes up with. It is more the variety of joke you’d find if you watch Leno, Letterman, Conan and Ferguson on any given night where the same joke is told, sometimes almost identically, on a given topic. These fall more in that variety. Visually they are similar layouts, but they would naturally go that way with the gags. I don’t think it is anything at all like the direct copies we saw in the other case. For example, the poster gag has been around for ages, done in skits and comedy routines, the resume one is not a stretch either and the bank one you can probably find 6 of them out there in the past few years with similar themes. So, food for thought anyway.

#3 Matt Bors
December/6/2011
@ 11:53 am

Look at the first one. No way they came up with “Medium-sized pile in the middle/center of the floor” independently. Sure, there are genuine coincidences in this field.

Stahler’s record has such an incredibly high percentage of coincidences, maybe we should all stop making excuses for him and admit what is most likely occurring: he’s stealing.

Cartoonists need to stop making excuses for this–and they need to speak up. The near complete silence this matter has been met with speaks to the old boys club nature of this industry.

#4 Pat Bagley
December/6/2011
@ 12:15 pm

On a related issue, what recourse do we have when a stand up comic lifts an idea from a cartoon?

#5 Terry LaBan
December/6/2011
@ 12:16 pm

Lesson for today: If you’re going to plagiarize something, don’t make it one of the most widely-read magazines in the country.

#6 Mike Lester
December/6/2011
@ 12:47 pm

Alan Gardner: ?As a general rule, as long as the cartoonist isn?t light-boxing, I try to give them the benefit of the doubt.?

Fair enough. However, my newspaper requested and received a letter addressed to yours truly on Post Dispatch stationary dated March 26, 2004 from mr. stahler admitting and apologizing for ?redrawing? one of my cartoons.

#7 Andrew Sprague
December/6/2011
@ 1:26 pm

As a “creative” in the industry, I know that when you see something good it sticks in your head, but if you can’t build on that experience and turn it into something unique, maybe you should stop looking at other materials in the media.

#8 Clay Jones
December/6/2011
@ 1:43 pm

Mike Lester, is that true? He admitted stealing and he wasn’t punished then? It’s even amazing he would do that in the first place, I mean steal and trace…not apologize.

Matt Bors is correct about the “Old Boy Network”, but I don’t think anyone is trying to protect other cartoonists. It’s just hard to prove it. Most who steal, do it well enough that they can say it’s an independent thought, and they usually change it up enough so a denial works for them. I would most don’t even think they stole it. There’s not many of us who wants to be a whiny punk about something they can’t prove.
And mostly, most guys are just going to worry about their own work and not what someone else is drawing, even they’re the victim of the theft.

I think there’s a larger problem than stealing, and that’s drawing obvious cartoons. Too many of us, myself included, come into this business training your mind to think like everyone else. Years later, if you try, you retrain your brain to think like nobody else. And if you steal from Mike Lester, you will get caught because NOBODY thinks like he does.

It’s kinda ironic that Jeff Stahler gets in trouble after years of drawing the safest non-opinionated cartoons.

#9 Roy Delgado
December/6/2011
@ 1:47 pm

Simple: Is he willing to take a lie detctor test ?

The wording in the first cartoon really makes him look bad because too many councidences of the exact or almost exact sequence of words which happen to be a long sentence and the odds of that happening ( two people wording a long sentence exactly the same ) is almost Zilch.

The NATIONAL-IZED gag is something that many humorists would come up with simultaneously on THAT particular subject . . . I do agree that it is just happening TOO much to the same guy . . . looks very suspicious.

Maybe, to be fair, however, wouldn’t it make you feel horrible that after a lot of cartoonists coming down on him you find out that he was actually struck by real lightning TWICE ! – – – and what are THOSE ODDS ? !

#10 Chris Schweizer
December/6/2011
@ 2:03 pm

I think the idea that two cartoonists coming up with the same gag is somehow equitable to lightning striking is ludicrous. We come up with the same gags ALL THE TIME. Screenwriters pitch the same movies independently at different studios, leading to a game of box-office chicken. Leno and Letterman both throw the same punchline. This happens all the time. ALL THE TIME. The first joke somebody comes up with on a given subject is likely to be the same one that someone else will come up with. In a deadline crunch, this is more likely to happen than not.

I recently went to submit a batch of gag-based t-shirt designs, and only after an exhaustive internet search did I find that two of them had been done. It’s far easier than people think for two folks to have the same idea. And I was submitting to an internet-based shirt company, where it’s easy to find similar stuff. Searching for print gags is all but impossible.

“Medium” pile is funnier than pile, in that it suggests multiple piles. Any cartoonist knows about submissions and how they tend to pile up, and an exaggerated version of this is not unlikely for a person to have seen.

The other two jokes are clever, but obvious solutions to the subject matter – I’m surprised there weren’t two dozen, let alone two.

I’m of the opinion that this could certainly be coincidence. Is it possible that the accused cartoonist stole the gags? Certainly. But it’s just as possible for him to have arrived at the punchlines entirely on his own, and if that’s the case it’s disheartening to see a man’s reputation and livelihood come under such fierce attack. I know that “Innocent until proven guilty” doesn’t apply to the internet, but I do hope that people consider the weight of their accusations and certainties.

#11 Matt Bors
December/6/2011
@ 2:17 pm

I guess none of you guys have seen the swipe from Lester.

#12 Clay Jones
December/6/2011
@ 2:47 pm

Matt, nope.

#13 Malc McGookin
December/6/2011
@ 3:56 pm

No, these can’t be put down to coincidence. I can forgive any cartoonist with deadlines looming using someone else’s cartoons to kickstart the mental processes. I’m sure we have all done it, but that is very different from filching an idea. These have been filched, and that is crossing the line.

#14 Mitch Berger
December/6/2011
@ 6:23 pm

Working on Double Take, I see as many political cartoons as almost anyone else does. There are lots of instances of great (and feeble) minds thinking alike. Unless there is a substantial difference between cartoons that play on the same premise, I use the one that was published first. Look at the cartoons done on the news that the Postal Service announced that it plans to end Express Mail. They all play off the joke that the mail is slow and inefficient. But I wouldn’t say any of the three copied from each other. Although it would have been nice if at least one of them mentioned the end of Express Mail.

http://www.politicalcartoons.com/cartoon/d7e4fa5c-2fcb-4d87-9d01-205c24e041c8.html

http://www.cartoonistgroup.com/store/add.php?iid=73855

http://www.cartoonistgroup.com/store/add.php?iid=73858

If what Mike Lester says is true – and I have no reason to doubt him – the similarities between Stahler’s work and the other cartoons takes on a much different meaning because copying is rarely a one-off offense. I foresee someone charged with going through all of Stahler’s work for the last year and comparing it to all the readily available cartoon sources going back for a couple of years. If they find other questionable coincidences, my guess is he’s toast. But I think you’d need at least another couple of instances before any action should be taken.

#15 Jim Lavery
December/7/2011
@ 8:21 am

I think the most hilarious and memorable post on the classic, short lived Bad Cartoonist blog was the expose of Stahler’s plagiarism of his own month-old cartoon, complete with red and blue lined overlays. BC referred to it as “doing a Stahler”. That and Mike Lester’s report (above) tells us everything.

http://badcartoonist.wordpress.com/2008/02/28/how-to-be-an-editorial-cartoonist-with-really-trying/#comments

#16 j Mac
December/7/2011
@ 1:15 pm

lie detctor tests arent reliable dude. “Many members of the scientific community consider polygraphy to be pseudoscience”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polygraph

#17 Larry Trepel
December/10/2011
@ 12:49 pm

Coincidences happen, and I always worry about unconsciously creating a cartoon based on one I’ve seen. But in this case, there’s no doubt–it’s grand theft. He should be fired immediately and go to work as a receptionist. This kind of stuff is a mark against our profession. If I was Sipress I’d pay him a personal visit.

#18 Jeremy Billadeau
December/10/2011
@ 1:05 pm

I have no idea or interest in Jeff or his work as being plagued with plagarism. I only wished to offer my experience and insight to some of the natural anomilies of our common human minds. The truth is we, as hominoids, of every walk of life, are far more the same than different. And there are too few circles of thought subscribed to our miniscule understanding to think any one thought will ever be independant on its own. Its completely inconcievable. Even far before our time across vast distances there have been accounts of peoples having amazingly similair thoughts. For instance, the norse god Loki was transcribed the avatar of a Raven and the peoples of Scandanavian gave him the properties of a mischevious scoundral. All the while half a world away there was an Alaskan indegionous tribe, whos name escapes me at the moment, who had transcribed the very same likeness and attributes to one of their own lesser deities at approxamately the same time period.

#19 Jonathan Gies
December/10/2011
@ 2:45 pm

I kind of live in fear of the possibility of this happening to me by accident. I worry that the most original, unique idea I feel I’ve ever had may have been subconsciously borrowed from somewhere. Where, I don’t know. But the concern is there. It doesn’t help that this idea has gotten me more favorable comments than anything else I’ve done. The more favorable comments I get, the more paranoid I get. So it goes. X}

#20 Larry Trepel
December/10/2011
@ 4:15 pm

Could anyone possibly think “Your resume is in a medium-size pile in the center of the floor” is not directly copied from “Your novel is in a medium-size pile in the center of the floor”?
Or that it might be an unconscious recollection?
I think there’s more chance that O.J. was innocent.
Hope “Doing a Stahler” enters our lexicon.

#21 p.susan
December/11/2011
@ 2:50 pm

makes me think back on those seinfeld segments.
for the love of god, seems harsh to string up stahler so quickly.
really?
does the theory of relativity come to play here?

#22 Bob Englehart
December/12/2011
@ 10:26 am

This all looks to be true. Too bad. Jeff seemed to have original thoughts but I admit I didn’t follow him closely. If I had, I might have noticed. I’ve been subscribing to New Yorker since the 1970’s. Whoever caught him, good job.

#23 Kurt
December/12/2011
@ 4:18 pm

I’m sure I could write a cartoon that I thought was original but that was just a remembered cartoon, especially one from many years before. My memory is that bad. That could explain the “medium-sized pile” cartoon. But Stahler only offered the explanation of coincidence.

#24 Keir Heath
December/12/2011
@ 11:23 pm

Any chance the word ‘lightbox’ could be defined so others can understand the reference?

#25 Dave W
December/15/2011
@ 10:07 pm

A light box is any kind of box with a glass pane and back lighting for tracing.

#26 Saul D
December/28/2011
@ 4:40 pm

That irreverence, that wit I’d recognize it anywhere. Some charlatan has stolen a Ziggy and passed it off as his own. I can prove it. Quick Elaine, to my archives.

#27 Reuven Ben-Pesach
December/29/2011
@ 12:59 am

Ironic that it was at the Columbus Dispatch where The New Yorker’s James Thurber got his start in journalism.

#28 Sergio Oscar
February/10/2012
@ 4:10 am

“Coincidence” my foot…if talks like a duck and walks like a duck it can hardly be an Ostrich…!!!

#29 Carol Shelton
March/19/2012
@ 12:48 pm

Isn’t it weird that Jeff Stahler, a liberal leaning cartoonist, was dumped and quickly replaced by a conservative cartoonist more fitting to the views of the Dispatch’s owners? Can you say: Set up?

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