Opinion: Perspective - Should it really matter if WCRS's TfL ad is a copy?

Have you seen it? Have you done it? The Test. Visit do-thetest.co.uk if you haven't. And give yourself a kicking for being well off the pace on the ad story of the week.

Few ads have generated such intense debate about copyright and ripping off other people's ideas. Mind you, with industry blogs going crazy at the moment, there's never been such fertile space in which to have such debates (179 comments on scampblog and counting; when do you lot get time to do any work?).

In case you don't know, there's a new ad for Transport for London. It's by WCRS. Repeat: WCRS; plenty of commentators thought it was by M&C Saatchi and have been, er, joking about duffing up the creatives there for being such blatant plagiarists. Now there are a few people at WCRS who should be looking over their shoulders.

Anyway, the issue is all about the ad's striking resemblance to a film made by the University of Illinois's Professor Daniel J Simons ten years ago. The original film was made to illustrate the theory of spatial awareness; the WCRS ad is designed to encourage drivers to be more vigilant.

Both films use two teams passing balls to each other. The viewer is asked to watch and count how many passes the white team makes. After you've done that and felt deeply smug you got the answer right, you're asked whether you spotted the man in the bear suit walking among the players. Which - admit it - you didn't.

WCRS's ad is not a coincidence, it's not a homage, it's not "inspired by", it's not sub-conscious. It's calculatedly almost exactly the same. OK, the WCRS film uses eight players instead of six. It's got a moon-walking bear instead of a chest-thumping gorilla. It's set outside instead of indoors. But put them side by side and these two babies are twins. Compare the two at: www.brandrepublic.com/campaign.

Does this matter? If you check the original film as it is posted on the University of Illinois site, you'll read that the video "may not be downloaded, saved, copied, reproduced or used for any other purpose". Which you might assume would sting WCRS into at least letting Prof Simons know about its TfL ad.

But if you know anything about the legals on this matter, you'll know that the very act of contacting a copyright holder about using their material changes the copyist's legal status. And anyway, we've been here before: copyright is a bugger of a thing to enforce. Adland has got away with ripping off other people's work for years; some of our best ads have come this way.

TfL and WCRS are confident they've got a solid legal defence. And the word from Illinois is one of disappointment, but there seems to be little appetite for a legal spat. Sorry.

So we're left with the moral and ethical issue. Is it OK for ad agencies to nick ideas, in fact nick entire concepts, from other people. Isn't this lazy, cheap, immoral, creatively bankrupt and stealing (cheating others out of financial compensation for their work)? It's definitely some and perhaps all of those things.

But still, should we care? One reason why we should: the status of advertising and advertising agencies is on the wane; it's more vital than ever that agencies underline their alchemic ability to use creativity to transform brands and change attitudes. If agencies are simply regurgitating existing ideas, they are complicit in the commoditisation of the industry.

One reason why we shouldn't care: to most of the people who have seen this ad, it's fresh, arresting and thought-provoking (and how many other ads can you say that about?).

Of course, everyone has to make their own mind up on the moral issue; WCRS's getout is that the road safety cause is good. On a small budget, the ad is generating enormous standout. Maybe it will save lives. Even if it saves one life, it's perhaps worth the industry's wrath.