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.
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:
For this weekend's musical interlude, we'll go crude without sacrificing significance. From the Disruptive Competition Project came the announcement that yesterday
[W]as twenty years [since] the Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose, its most recent consideration of fair use. The Court made clear, in a unanimous opinion, that a commercial parody was fair use under Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Act. A lower court had held that the rap act 2 Live Crew’s “Pretty Woman,” a lewd skewering of Roy Orbison’s saccharine love ballad “Oh, Pretty Woman,” was presumptively unfair because it was a commercial parody. When the group and frontman Luther Campbell appealed, the Supreme Court reversed, holding that the “more transformative the new work, the less will be the significance of other factors, like commercialism, that may weigh against a finding of fair use.” (Some interesting C-SPAN coverage of the case before the Court’s decision, hinting at class overtones of the dispute is available here.)
It should be remembered too (as I pointed out yesterday) that to limit the implications of Campbell to commercial parodies of other works--that is to appropriating works that only appropriate to comment or criticize the works they appropriate--is too narrow a reading of the Court's 1994 decision and of the ways art is always appropriating the meaningful elements of its culture (including its works of art) to create new meanings entirely divorced from the component elements. But this discussion is for another day. This weekend is to revisit the heights of misogyny the pop charts chan reach:
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?