Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Plagiarism, Imitation, Theft and Copyright

This past Saturday, I attended an interesting symposium on plagiarism hosted by ABF Göteborg, in the of wake of which I have been thinking a lot on this matter. Hence, I have decided to put down a few of those thoughts here.

Earlier this spring, I discussed the cult of originality and its role in art (whatever the art form). The ideas expressed in that post are components that are crucial to our current understanding of plagiarism, but they are certainly not the only ones. The concept of plagiarism requires a sense of originality, true, but it also requires the concept of copyright; and this is a legal concept. As such, while artistic ideas of originality must surely have been part of the context which could give birth to copyright, it would never have come to pass unless a lucrative market had not also arisen. The market is interested in keeping intellectual property intact because it generates revenue. Do not misunderstand me, this is not necessarily, in and of itself, an altogether bad thing (artists too need to earn their living); nor in fact is it in the end the only thing protected by copyright. Copyright secures the right of an artist to be given his/her due for work done (and while copyright mostly define this in financial terms, there are nevertheless other levels added as if by default).

Now, plagiarism can be many things; maybe not all of them bad. I doubt that many would argue with me about the wrongness of say, my taking a poem by Lord Byron and publishing it as my own (i.e. without referencing Byron and consequently making explicit or implicit claims of having "done the work" as it were). But what if I composed a new poem out of quotes from a longer poem by Byron, or perhaps several different ones? Copyright in literature implies that words can be the intellectual property of an individual, yet words are parts of language and have as such always been a mass of reiterations. The sentence "I love you" cannot be ascribed to a single individual, and while other sentences may (quite obviously) be sourced to specific people, there is nevertheless a possibility that these sentences too have been stolen from sources now lost to us (perhaps not even textual sources in the first place). There is even a possibility that the same words have been banded together in that very manner by somebody else without there even existing a connection between the two parties making this specific utterance (granted that this becomes less and less likely the longer a verbatim concordance runs).

Similarly, plot structure, character and many other narrative components have always been in circulation, and before copyright (and perhaps before a demand for originality), the art of imitation was often ranked highly, albeit, perhaps performed differently in different eras. There is, for instance, an interesting question as to how much of Shakespeare's work could have been written with our current copyright laws in effect.

As such, plagiarism per se needs not be an unproductive or inartistic approach. In fact, I would argue that it both can be and have been used very productively throughout history and still to this day. Returning briefly to my Byron example above, making a condensed new poem out of an old one or a collage poem out of several old ones would entail an artistic process. While such poems would certainly be made from stolen (or at the very least borrowed) goods, they would nevertheless constitute something new, if for nothing else than the fact that the combination of sentences on a higher text level also affects the content and meaning of those sentences on lower text levels. In short, any given passage does not necessarily mean the same thing in all contexts.

Still, on a moral note, there is something appealing in paying one's dues (if not financially, then at least ethically). Artists who work with these types of collages or borrowing often do not feel the need to hide it. In fact, the reverberation achieved by such allusions might be part of the effect these artists strive for. One way of paying one's dues in such cases might be an appended list of works used. Under current copyright laws, such a list may even be more or less prompted by law and require explicit permission from the copyright holder (often, in turn, requiring a fee for that permission; depending on the circumstances). The obvious counter-effect to this is that some artists may opt not to pay their dues explicitly in the hopes of circumventing the copyright machinery altogether.

It is also worth noting that a work may lose some of its impact if its potential sources are revealed too clearly and upfront; that is, that artistic or narrative effect may be sacrificed on the altar of copyright and intellectual property. Don't get me wrong here. I am not advocating that we do away with the concepts of copyright and intellectual property. As someone who writes, I think these are important advances in how we view such work, both in financial and ethical terms; but also I think it is important that we note that these rules are not always artistically or narratively productive; that there is something inherently counter-productive within those selfsame parameters.

At the end of the day (and returning to the ethical dimensions), there needs to be a middle-ground of sorts, where artists can borrow (and perhaps steal) to create something out of something else (as it were), but without stealing the claim of originality. Outside of legal and financial issues, this may well be the critical point to make. It may not be the borrowing or stealing itself that constitutes the ethical transgression, but rather the suggestion that such borrowing or stealing constitutes some sort of ex nihilo creation; in essence making the artist into an author-ity by deviously reciting someone else's, while simultaneously erasing that other in the process.

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