The properties of a thing are effects on other ‘things’: if one removes other ‘things,’
then a thing has no properties, i.e. there is no thing without other things, i.e. there is no thing in itself.
— Frederick Nietzsche Will to Power.
I, Mark C. Taylor, am not writing this book. Yet the book is being written. It is as if I were the screen through which the words of others flow and on which they are displayed. Words, thoughts, ideas are never precisely my own; they are always borrowed rather than possessed. […] As boundaries become permeable, it is impossible to know when or where this book began or when and where it will end.
–Mark C. Taylor, The Moment of Complexity.
Mark Taylor is an old advisor of mine, and yet these words of his never rang so true to me as they do for this assignment. I, Andrew Lazarow, am not writing my opinion of intellectual property. This post will inevitably, like Lethem’s article, be others’ words and ideas flowing through me. I have only had one real issue with copyright; not nearly enough to form an opinion beyond what I have read and heard from others.
The obvious argument to be made is we live in a network culture. Things, as Nietzsche aptly observed, cannot exist in and of themselves. Their properties are relational. Take a glass vase, for example. Let’s get beyond the obvious fact that the glass came from sand, which had to be converted into glass. The key component of a vase is its ability to hold things such as water, or flowers. Take those away, and all we have is a glass object with a void in the center. But without anything to hold, does the empty glass object still matter as a vase?
Now let’s look at complexity and network theories about individuals. After all, we are just as reliant on relationships to define who we are. Our relationships and interactions through life constantly shape and redefine who we are. Interactions are also, arguably, the drive that moves ideas down the path of progress. This belief is the root of Hegel’s dialectic: Thesis, antithesis, synthesis.
(While I have many issues with Hegel’s system, his emphasis on the impact of exchanging ideas is something I can get behind.)
It is from this perspective that I have major issues with strict copyright legislation—especially when it comes to a strict interpretation of the fair use clause. Examples abound, as Lethem points out, from Shakespeare to Nabokov of artists borrowing from previous works to create pieces that now define our cannon of “high art.”
My favorite contemporary example is actually the fashion industry. Fashion does not fit under copyright protection. (It does fit under trademark protection though.) And this has done some very positive things for the industry. For one, as Stuart Weitzman admitted in an interview, it has pushed him to remain innovative and step up his game. This is not a solitary case; it has pushed the whole industry to stay inventive and continue pushing forward. And as Johanna Blakely points out, the fashion industry has other “Virtues of Copying:”
- “Democratization of fashion.”
- “Faster Establishment of Global Trends.”
- “Induced obsolescence.”
Blakely even made a wonderful graph pointing out the difference in Gross Sales between Low Intellectual Property (IP) industries, and high IP industries:
All of these points seem to make the cases for reducing strict copyright protection. Which, at this point in my career, I am generally in favor of. Especially if what we are talking about is a relaxed interpretation of the fair use clause.
My biggest worry about a general relaxation of copyright is a worry that it will create lack of rigor in praxis as well as thought amongst artists and designers. It is easy to root for Joy Garnett and against Susan Meiselas. However, I have to side with Meiselas when she makes points like: “Technology allows us to do many things, but that does not mean we must do them. Indeed, it seems to me that if history is working against context, then we must, as artists, work all the harder to reclaim that context.”
Thinking beyond Meiselas’s photograph, let us take the Grey Album as an example again. DJ Dangermouse did not expect this to be a phenomenon. I, for one, believe that he did not simply chose those two albums just because of their chromatic titles. For me, it is clear that he did take the context and history of the content into account when mixing the Beatles and Jay-Z together. Moreover, he did not simply layer one vocal track on top of an instrumentals track. His mix of “99 Problems” makes it almost difficult to tell that he is sampling “Helter Skelter.” DangerMouse’s mix of “Encore” inspired George Martin to reproduce “Glass Onion” for the Love album and show in Las Vegas. The Grey Album does walk a fine line. But most importantly, it shows a rigor of praxis (and in my opinion of thought).
Place that next to the bulk of other mash-ups. In my opinion there is not the same intellectual framework for doing an album of Jay-Z set to tracks by Radiohead. Moreover, very little work is done to the instrumental or vocal tracks in most mash-ups, beyond layering them together.
Music and mash-ups is the common example. But most artforms have seen a huge rise in appropriation recently. My largest issue with that recent rise is what Meisalas points out in her half of the Harper’s article. It seems to be an easy choice, and in many cases the least interesting choice. Sure, I like it when artists quote or reference The Great Gatsby, or Lil’ Wayne, or Andy Warhol. Sometimes its just cute and clever. Sometimes I feel like it is an artist’s way of not confronting who she or he is, or what she or he believes.
There are instances of appropriation that and grab me emotionally and intellectual. They range from the Wooster Group’s ’84 piece L.S.D. (..Just the High Points…), Kneehigh Theater’s current Brief Encounter, or DJ Green Lantern’s tracks that combine Martin Luther King Jr, Malcom X, 2Pac, and Joe Budden.
The examples that interest me, and have my full support, are the pieces where the new creators take the original context into account and highlight overlooked aspects, or thrust it into something new and unexpected.