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The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism

“There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote.”

The article discusses in great detail about the history and modern examples and implications of plagiarism and influence or inspiration. In literature we often see repeating themes, the same plot line just in different context or era. There are authors like William S. Buroughs who incorporates snippets of other writer’s texts into his work. In art we see movements and popular styles or the use of iconographic images. In music we see remixes, samples and covers. There are musicians like Girl Talk who’s creations only use small samples of other songs and clips (legal under fair use law).

In such a litigious society like our own, intellectual property is a very touchy subject. Everyone wants full ownership and commercial profit for his/her work and the laws currently supply that. Piracy currently carries the same criminal offense as steeling a car or a handbag. The author makes a good argument here. He states that once a car or a handbag is stolen, it is no longer available to it’s owner but the acquiring a piece of intellectual property does not disturb or change the original.

But what about the works that rely on borrowed material or cultural icons (i.e. Gone with the Wind, Disney characters, Band-Aid, Campbelles, etc…) for inspiration? Can culture be considered property? The author mentions the likes of The Simpsons or The Flintstones as such examples that draw inspirations from earlier shows and cultural icons. “Animation is built on plagiarism!”

How far can the current laws sustain this model of ownership especially in the digital age? On the other side of things, there is the Creative Commons license, which allows the distribution of copywriter material to use and to build upon or the open hardware license, which publishes all aspects of a design for personal and commercial use. We as future innovators will have to take careful consideration when deciding how to publish and protect our work because we will inevitably take inspiration from other works and we will definitely get ripped off.

4 comments to The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism

  • Patricia

    I definitely think that our current laws are built for the physical world, not the digital world. The infrastructure of the internet is simply too complex for the legal system to prosecute every act of “borrowing” a piece of art/text/image.
    If copyright infringement would be put into effect on the internet, youtube wouldn’t exist as we know it and we wouldn’t be able to “share” anything: videos, documents, images; unless that something we shared was created by us.

    So I do think there is a fine line as to how we are going to proceed in the future as artists and define the purpose of the work that we create. If we create to be profitable, it is hard to argue that someone else should get money for the work that you did… but then again, don’t we do the same thing all the time? Get inspired by other people? And how would that stop our creativity if everybody started getting protective?

    The ultimate utopia would be a world (both digital and physical) were everything is public, and anyone can innovate on top of that. But I can say that calmly, without hesitation, because I haven’t experiences what it feels like to see someone else’s name attached to my work (even if it is altered or inspired by it) without no mention on me. When that happens, I will know how I really feel about this issue and I will be able to judge it based on my experience.

    Maybe if we didn’t create work for the money… then borrowing wouldn’t be like taking away from someone’s livelihood.. you know? It’s a complicated issue, for sure.

    Maybe ten years down the line, we will be able to look bag and laugh at copyright law as something too retrograde for the advanced, technological world we live in. Or maybe we will get to a place in civilization where monetizing our work is done in a completely revolutionary way we haven’t even discovered yet, so public works won’t be a problem…

    (Futuristic movie idea, anyone?)

    ( Creative Commons website: )

  • dal230

    For anyone interested in the philosophical questions related to mechanical reproduction, check this out:

    It’s a bar room round table discussion based on a simple question: if you are able to exactly reproduce a van gogh, to the point where every expert is fooled, then is the copy worth the same as the original? It does seem to make an object more significant if you know that it’s connected to someone you admire or something that happened to you in the past, but if you’ve been fooled and the object isn’t real aren’t the emotions still real? Maybe the desire to hold and see the thing that was actually touched by the artist is just nostalgia. It brings up interesting issues for art made with reproducibility in mind.

  • Jon "Wasserman"

    I don’t know that defining the purpose of the work we create would have any strength or utility in reference to how it could be appropriated. For example, if you create an image or a song for an ad, or a movie, or a sports team, is that IP not vulnerable to parody, or black market reproduction, or sampling, or referencial art? It makes no difference to the user.

    One might argue that if the art you create is “work” then it was made for direct or potential payment. But as Lethem points out, artwork gets sold and/or is commissioned, but it is mostly engaged/enjoyed by an audience who doesn’t pay for a part of the work’s value. But the art is made to be digested by the commons and it is in that experience that new references and experiences are made.

    Shepard Fairey’s Obama/Hope Poster was essentially commissioned for the promotion and marketing of the Barack Obama for President brand. One mode of talking about this art would be that the style, (which is akin to Fairey’s own brand)was lifted directly from the widely used Russian agitprop style. The marriage of Obama and the style made a cultural meme. But that meme spawned a degraded facsimile in the ability to apply that style to any picture you had with the use of an image generator. See:
    So if you generated your own image with obamiconme or made new art in agitprop style, would you have to pay many to the re-elect Obama campaign? Or Fairey? The style itself is non-owned and public domain. WWWDD? Aka: What Would Walt Disney Do?

    But another way to talk about this art would be in the way that “Fairey grabbed a news photograph off the internet…” ( That photo was taken by another artist, ostensibly for the good of the commons, at a rally for awareness about Darfur.

    Wikipedia says, “Photographer Mannie Garcia contended that he retained copyright to the photo according to his AP contract. He said that he was “so proud of the photograph and that Fairey did what he did artistically with it, and the effect it’s had,” but that he did not “condone people taking things, just because they can, off the Internet.”

    I think it’s important to note that Associated Press, not the photographer himself, brought the charges against Fairey. They have an interest in protecting their photographers, but if the shot had been non-commissioned, Garcia would have had to turn to professional photographers’ advocacy groups for any restitution, and may not have had the resources to address Fairey or the campaign.

    And here is the post-script:

    If Fairey had done this on his own, I have doubts that he’d have suffered any inconvenience about appropriating the image. And I’m inclined to support that environment.

  • Nancy

    There’s a great book called Boggs, A Comedy of Values by Lawrence Wecshler.. here;s a description from Amazon…: James Stephen George Boggs is not a con artist, he’s a talented artist who deftly renders his own currency and “spends” it. Struck by the value of money, and what paper notes represent, he draws U.S. dollar bills, English pound notes, Swiss francs, and other forms of paper money; then he barters his illustrious artwork in lieu of cash to willing merchants who agree to honor his currency for services and products.

    It’s a great read…very funny, very interesting questioning of reality and money. (2 separate topics!)