Inspiration, Theft, and Copy Protection

Inspiration is a word with many meanings, particularly when used in an artistic context.  In some cases, it means simply to animate action; in others it means to make something similar. Some would call the latter idea stealing; some would call it sampling; some would call it homage, some would call it being influenced. Legally, I am told, you can appropriate an idea but not the exact representation of a thing, unless, of course the thing you are copying happens to be in the public domain, as fewer and fewer things seem to be.

To prevent such appropriation, we rely ever increasingly on the copyright. Johanna Blakley in a TED talk, however, notes that the fashion industry has no copyright protection and finds that, because of that lack of protection, fashion designers “have been able to elevate utilitarian design…into something we consider art.” They can “sample from all their peers’ designs…and can incorporate it into their own designs.”

Not only does Blakely argue that this inability to protect is a virtue, but she feels that it is responsible for the significant profit in the fashion industry. As evidence, she points out the differences in the reported income of non-protected industries versus similar protected industries. The non-protected ones are so far ahead as to make it no contest.  Some artists who agree with this approach refuse to copyright their works, electing to go with the more flexible, and some say more progressive creative commons licensing scheme.

Some argue that this is the way artistic ideas develop, or at least used to before the world became as litigious as it seems to be today. One artist would look at the work of another and react to it, often building on it, sometimes incorporating it, sometimes quoting it, which seems to be a more palatable practice (although no one except motion picture directors and critics seems to know exactly where the line is between copying and quoting).  In any case, according to some, this is how movements are built, or according to Blakely, how global fashion trends are established.

Some artists go further, encouraging the theft not only of ideas, but of anything:

Out of the closets and into the museums, libraries, architectural monuments, concert halls, bookstores, recording studios and film studios of the world. Everything belongs to the inspired and dedicated thief…. Words, colors, light, sounds, stone, wood, bronze belong to the living artist. They belong to anyone who can use them. Loot the Louvre! A bas l’originalité, the sterile and assertive ego that imprisons us as it creates. Vive le sol—pure, shameless, total. We are not responsible. Steal anything in sight. – William S. Burroughs

Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.”  – Jim Jarmusch

On the other hand, some artists are very protective. Damien Hirst, who himself has been known to borrow the ideas of others, threatened to sue a 16-year old artist for using a photograph of Hirst’s diamond-studded skull in collages. And I know at least one artist, a photographer, who becomes furious if someone steals her ideas; I don’t know that I blame her.

Blakely says that the solution, at least in the fashion industry, is to create pieces that are of such quality that successful knockoffs are impossible or to put together a signature look that is too hard to copy. I think the best approach is to put those two ideas together. Whether you are in the copyright or the creative commons or some other camp, create pieces of the highest quality and develop a style and content that is so distinctive that copying, if possible at all, would be would be obvious even to the most untrained eye.

Date: Sunday, 5. December 2010 23:55
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