PERSPECTIVE: Plagiarism is tricky to police while ideas aren’t copyrightable

By JOHN TYLEE,, Friday, 28 April 2000 12:00AM

A few years ago Campaign was tipped off that an agency running a series of famous TV commercials had stolen the idea for them. What’s more, there was evidence to prove it.

A few years ago Campaign was tipped off that an agency running a

series of famous TV commercials had stolen the idea for them. What’s

more, there was evidence to prove it.

Word was that the theme had been ripped off from a young woman who had

presented it when being interviewed for a creative placement.

I tracked down the alleged victim. Yes, she could prove her claim but,

no, she didn’t want to make a fuss. She was building her career at

another agency, you see, and didn’t want to be saddled with a reputation

as a litigious troublemaker.

Although the agency accused of carrying out the creative smash-and-grab

went on to win a shedload of awards, rumours about the campaign’s

origins persisted. So much so that the agency’s boss, fearful that his

staff’s good name was being seriously undermined, let it be known that

anybody going public with the plagiarism allegation would be on the

receiving end of a writ.

Whether the woman’s claims could ever have been substantiated to a

judge’s satisfaction is doubtful. Copyright doesn’t protect ideas, only

the way those ideas are expressed - as Liz Jones, a media studies

student at Sussex University, may soon find out.

Switch on Channel Four News or The Big Breakfast or open The Times and

The Independent and there is Jones, who is happy to publicise her claim

that D’Arcy rejected her idea for a Maltesers ad then used it as its


Jones says she is considering legal action against the agency for

allegedly pinching her suggestion, submitted three years ago, which was

inspired by her party trick of blowing a Malteser in the air.

Nick Hastings, D’Arcy’s creative director, totally rejects her charge

and the agency has produced a sheaf of tabloid press cuttings about the

Malteser-blowing craze which ran more than two months before Jones

submitted her storyboard.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the dispute, it’s hard not to have

sympathy for D’Arcy which is powerless to halt the media bandwagon

rolling against it. Whatever it says or does will not remove thoughts

from the minds of viewers and readers that agencies not only plunder

ideas but that advertising is so easy anybody can do it.

More serious is the possible effect of this kind of publicity on the

relationship between the agency and Mars, a powerful and unforgiving


’Mars will tough it out but it will put the blame on the agency and it

will exact a price,’ a former senior manager of a Mars roster agency

tells me. ’The company will use this to gain improvements in service.

It’s not that Mars is naturally unpleasant - it’s just an opportunity to

be seized.’

At least one major agency has a system under which one person is

responsible for returning all unsolicited ideas before they reach the

creative department. Maybe others should be doing likewise.

Caroline Marshall is on maternity leave.

This article was first published on


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