Pretty much every time there is a plagiarism or copyright case in the news, someone will ask me for my opinion. Most of the time I not only don’t have an opinion, I don’t want to have an opinion, because having an opinion — artistic or legal — would require me to: 1) investigate whatever pop singer or cultural producer is being accused of infringing 2) think about copyright law. There are so many other smart people thinking about it, like Lessig, Doctorow, Hyde, Ferguson, etc., and, I mean, if I wanted to think about copyright law all day, I’d have done what my parents wanted me to do and gone to law school.
That said, I’m writing this blog post as a placeholder (or thought-holder) so that I can link to it whenever somebody asks me what I think about so-and-so ripping off so-and-so:
1. Copyright is not a bad thing.
Because I wrote a book called Steal Like An Artist, many assume I’m some sort of copyright crusader, that I think copyright should be abolished. Nope! Copyright keeps a roof over our heads and food in my kids’ bellies. The whole point of copyright law is to encourage people to share their creative work for everyone’s benefit by making sure the creators can be fairly compensated for it. (Do I think the copyright system in the U.S. has been completely twisted by gigantic corporations? Yes.) Steal Like An Artist is not a book about copyright infringement. If you’re a good thief, you don’t get caught: You transform your influences, so that the stolen parts become a new whole. (People also think I’m a fan of any kind of remix—not true! Like every other kind of creative work, I think that 90% of remixes are crap.) Furthermore, I think that legal constraints can lead to interesting artistic constraints.
2. Responses to claims of plagiarism are more interesting than the plagiarism itself.
How the accused, the accuser, and spectators respond to claims of infringement tells you loads about them and how they think about creative work. For example, plagiarism is not very interesting in itself, but an author’s attempts to justify it can be. It’s also fun to watch the web unravel when lawyers get lathered up and fingers start being pointed: I’ve seen artists accuse other artists of ripping off their work, only to be found out later for having ripped off their work from another artist!
One of my favorite responses to a lawsuit was James Cameron’s attorney, who wrote that Cameron is the “most original and creative person in the motion picture business today” and doesn’t need to copy from anybody. (Ron Howard narrator’s voice: “He does.”)
Juries are a whole other can of worms: One person’s transformation is another person’s infringement, and if you think about how little your average person understands about art and music, there’s no telling what a jury will decide.
3. What is right is not necessarily legal and what is legal is not necessarily right.
I think of copyright cases like Elmore Leonard novels: there’s a bag of money and everybody’s trying to get their hands on it. The smaller the turf, the bigger the war, and as it becomes harder and harder to make a living, as the collective bag of money for musicians and other artists shrinks and shrinks, there will be plenty of attorneys happy to resort to suing for whatever’s up for grabs.
The real winners in any copyright case are the lawyers. It rarely has anything to do with the art. Every artist knows that art comes from art—it’s only the honest ones who admit it. But the reality is we live with a legal system that leads to musicians being advised not to acknowledge any influence whatsoever. Hide the truth and cover your ass — like everything else in American life, we’re stuck navigating between what we know is right and real and what’s the law.
PS. The collage above is a homage to the monkey selfie case.