Why does the rhetoric of copyright policy diverge so far from the practices and lifestyles of actual artists? Artists copy constantly, and rarely rely on copyright’s economic incentive. One explanation is that copyright really isn’t directed at promoting the creation of art; rather, it’s true objective is protecting the business models of publishers and distributors of copyrighted works. Media companies, however, are not as sympathetic beneficiaries of copyright legislation as individual artists, and thus hide behind artists when promoting their agenda.
To be sure, copyright plays a significant role in promoting the creation of works that are expensive to produce, such as motion pictures. But nuanced policymaking should not confuse the needs of movie studios with those of individual artists.
Moreover, because digital networks have dramatically lowered the cost of publishing and distributing works, copyright now is less critical to promoting these activities. While overly broad copyright laws may help large media companies preserve their profitability, they aren’t necessary to ensure that the public has access to creative works.
An excellent piece by Jonathan Band, The Gap Between Artistic Practice and Copyright Rhetoric, builds off Jerry Saltz's 33 rules on How to be an Artist. Band's conclusion is very much of a piece of what I've been expressing for years:
"One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest."
--T.S. Eliot, “The Sacred Wood.”
This is one of the quotes that opens Steal Like An Artist, and I go back to it occassionally to remember that Eliot had it all laid out almost 100 years ago. It’s actually quite different than the “good artists copy, great artists steal” quote that is usually (mis)attributed to Picasso. What Eliot is talking about is transformation — not just taking things out of context, but re-contextualizing them. (Godard put it, “It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to.”) Actually, as Eliot points out, it does matter where you take things from — a good poet borrows from poems “remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.” So: steal from the past, steal from another language or culture, or steal from someone who’s writing about another subject.
On March 26 2014 the Copyright Society of the USA’s New York Chapter presented a luncheon panel – If I Ran The Zoo: Probing The Contours Of “The Next Great Copyright Act” – at the Princeton Club in NYC. A year ago Copyright Registar Maria Pallante delivered the Manges Lecture at Columbia University in which she called upon Congress to enact a program of comprehensive copyright reform. Since then hearings have been held by Senate Judiciary, and the USPTO, to explore the issues involved . The CSUSA convened this panel of experts, and asked them what they would do if they “ran the zoo”, in the hopes of discovering where there might be points of consensus, and intractable strife, and, perhaps, space for deeper exploration. Speakers were Allan Adler: Gen. Counsel & VP, Government Affairs, Assoc. of American Publishers; Victor Perlman: Gen. Counsel, American Society of Media Photographers; Michael Weinberg: VP, Public Knowledge. Moderator: Robert Kasunic: Assoc. Register of Copyrights, Dir. of Registration Policy & Practice.
Like Maria Popova, I am "the combinatorial nature of creativity is something think about a great deal," so I am grateful for her pointing to this letter from Mark Twain to Helen Keller in response to charges of plagiarism that had been made against her:
Oh, dear me, how unspeakably funny and owlishly idiotic and grotesque was that ‘plagiarism’ farce! As if there was much of anything in any human utterance, oral or written, except plagiarism! The kernel, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. When a great orator makes a great speech you are listening to ten centuries and ten thousand men — but we call it his speech, and really some exceedingly small portion of it is his. But not enough to signify. It is merely a Waterloo. It is Wellington’s battle, in some degree, and we call it his; but there are others that contributed. It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a telephone or any other important thing — and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite — that is all he did. These object lessons should teach us that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make us modest. But nothing can do that.
Peter Friedman is a lawyer, artist representative, speaker & writer who's written for years on the impact of law on creative endeavors and law itself as a creative endeavor. From 2008-2012, he wrote Ruling Imagination: Law & Creativity, selections of which are republished here and the entire archive of which is available from the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine here and in pdf format here. In addition, he has written about copyright and fair use at What is Fair Use?