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The Ecstasy of Influence, A Plagiarism

The ecstasy of influence:A plagiarism By Jonathan Lethem


This article is about a few things. It’s about appropriation, simulacra, auteurism, economics and the gift of art.

Lethem talks about the beauty in the tradition of taking, copying and redefining ideas. He also talks about the illegitimacy of trying to own a culture experience, even if you made it. Somewhat compartmentalizing the entitlement to valuable compensation for the immediate thing you created, he discusses the importance and benefit of permitting access to intellectual property for the sake of the Commons. It’s a challenge to the status quo of Capitalism, an indictment of SoPA and a vote of confidence for Open Source. But it boils down very simply to this expression: We should make things for the service and enjoyment of society, and restriction of ideas only keeps the best of our potential from us.

This argument sits somewhat outside the important discussion of our relationship to taking resources and outputting pollutants into the environment. I mean this both literally and metaphorically. But it not only espouses the creativity of sampling, mashing up and reimagining, it suggests that many intellectual property restrictions only benefit the corporate ownership related to that thing. The terms of the rules are defined by the corporate interest, and they benefit the corporate food web (the distributors over the creators) more than it truly serves the populace. He illustrates the derivation of nourishment from music and literature and film. He cites that Einstein takes credit for his work, but does not maintain ownership over everyone else’s opportunity to explore, use and remake it.

Lethem says, “Honoring the commons is not a matter of moral exhortation. It is a practical necessity. We in Western society are going through a period of intensifying belief in private ownership, to the detriment of the public good. We have to remain constantly vigilant to prevent raids by those who would selfishly exploit our common heritage for their private gain. Such raids on our natural resources are not examples of enterprise and initiative. They are attempts to take from all the people just for the benefit of a few.”

I’d say this is a compelling case for Open Source. The question is: How can Open Source play with Capitalism and not get sullied or destroyed? There is evidence supporting the idea that Capitalism is not so much broken as it was not a sustainable or “good” paradigm to begin with. These criticisms don’t usually promote a solution other than “tearing it all down and starting fresh”. But that fix seems oversimplified and excludes strategy. I don’t see Open Source as a polar opposite to Capitalism, but rather an entirely alternative ethos, whose achilles heel is the retort, “how will I earn money, own things and therefore provide for my family?” But if you can release from that mindset, the ways that the greater good and individuals benefit from it are more evident.

-Jon Wasserman

13 comments to The Ecstasy of Influence, A Plagiarism

  • Nancy

    Is there a difference,do you think, between using/deepening/having a conversation with a piece of work and appropriating someone else’s work as your own? Does it matter? Let’s say a photographer takes a photo of someone, with that person’s permission. And someone else copies that image and uses it in another context, another medium?

    In poetry for example there are lots of conversations: Look at Rilke’s The Archaic Torso of Apollo and James Wright’s Lying in a Hammock on William Duffy’s Farm. Clearly, a conversation ..but not a replica.

    What do you think is plagiarism? Could you copy this comment and call it your own? I’m being serious. Where is the line if there is a line?

  • Sergio "quote" Majluf "end quote"

    I asked myself the same question about that text: is that “building on top of another piece” stealing? (my extended ramblings are on

    I’m mentally toying with the idea that you don’t even need to ask for permission. There’s a moral issue here, but I’m trying to let loose of that (cultural consensus that stealing is bad) to be able further analyse and understand the plagiarism phenomena within our cultural DNA.

    Learning is in our human nature, and one of the most profound and meaningful learning experiences we might have, are those of learning by imitation; we learn how to speak and behave by imitation, so is it not natural that we learn to create, and thus, keep creating by imitation?

    In that line of thought, imitation is just one step before appropriation, and it’s really a gray area where, out of context, it get’s truly difficult to take a stand. Is the lack of that context what I miss in the original article.

    I think Jon’s example on Open Source is the most clear example of how our “commons” must be rethought after such strong cultural and contextual change as technologies have made in our society in the last 20 years.

    It’s time for a moral firmware update maybe?

  • Michelle Cortese

    I’m mentally toying with the idea that you don’t even need to ask for permission. There’s a moral issue here, but I’m trying to let loose of that (cultural consensus that stealing is bad) to be able further analyse and understand the plagiarism phenomena within our cultural DNA.

    Immediately, what comes to mind here is the famous 1994 Steve Jobs interview in which he quotes the (alleged) Picasso line, .

    If the appropriation is used—whether in combination with other sources or not—to create something new, rather than expand or rename or remix, it becomes a separate entity. And in this case it doesn’t seem necessary to ask for permission.

    The awful shadow that currently lingers over creative appropriation int he design world is, IMHO, partially due to post-modernism and the creative wars it bred. Paula Scher, Peter Saville, etc effectively made “borrowing” feel cheap. But that’s because they did it wrong. They didn’t create anything new, they barely changed the context of the work.

  • Michelle Cortese

    (formatting issue, click the comma to access the Jobs interview)
    alt link =

  • Colin Narver

    In the article Lethem adds, “Despite hand-wringing at each technological turn—radio, the Internet—the future will be much like the past. Artists will sell some things but also give some things away. Change may be troubling for those who crave less ambiguity, but the life of an artist has never been filled with certainty.”

    True, but this just seems like a cop out to me. Yes, artists live in ambiguity, but the barriers or structures that either inhibit or facilitate their economic survival shouldn’t be adhered to for the sake of their perceived, perpetual, unchangeable existence. Furthermore, Lethem’s view of private ownership as an “attempt to take from all the people just for the benefit of a few” seems very short sided.

    Artists deserved to be compensated for the consumption of their work so that they can afford to make more art.

    Although I have downloaded plenty of music illegally, I have done so begrudgingly and primarily with the view that there didn’t seem to be a structure in place that allowed for me to consume new music while at the same time benefitting the artists. Then Spotify came along and now suddenly I can listen to nearly everything I ever wanted to for the price of listening to an ad every few songs. I don’t own the music I am hearing, I am streaming/renting it. As a result, a new vehicle of consumption was created that is mutually beneficial to the artist and the listener.

    When the iPod/iTunes first came out, I remember ripping all of my CDs onto my computer, backing them up on a hard drive and then thinking to myself how pleased I to have ownership of all of my music in one place. As the digital archiving of my music continued over the years, I thought to myself how happy I would be to one day pass this collection on to my kids—an inheritance of music. Today, this concept of digital hoarding couldn’t feel more archaic.

    Art exists in a world where it can be stolen or streamed, manipulated and reinterpreted. What’s seems essential to me is that the vehicles of consumption should always enable more art, not restrict it.

  • sjg447

    For me, a lot of this issue comes down to authorship verses ownership. In this view, “authorship” indicates the person that made the thing while “ownership” indicates the person that can make money from it (or not) or even a kind of open ownership where it belongs to everybody.

    My personal interest (almost definitely to my detriment) has always been authorship. I want to make things and be known as the guy that makes things and be remembered as the guy that made things. I’ve done okay with that so far, but what I’ve done really poorly at is making any kind of living from it. I was a pretty strong open source advocate in the early days and even worked on various open source Linux project in the late 90s. This definitely set me up to be a give-it-away kind of person with my work, but more and more often when I do that, somebody else comes along and finds a way to monetize.

    This surprises some people, but solving this problem is one of the main reasons I’m at ITP. I already do pretty well with making things, but I’m absolutely terrible at making a living making things, which typically means doing things I don’t like (read: commercial design) to pay the bills while doing cool stuff on the side. I’ve had enough!

  • Esteban

    Not to play the contrarian here, but from an economic standpoint we are guided by economic incentives, and thus the need to have an established rule of copyright and ownership must be enforced. Perhaps not in it’s current state, but an economic/legal framework must exists in order to create more goods. Just think about a pharmaceutical company. What incentive would they have to spend billions of dollars in research to find a cure for x disease. Without a legal framework in place, there would be none.I wouldn’t want another company to “appropriate” my recipe and undercut me in price because they didn’t incur the costs of developing the drug. In relation to art, I’m sure the desire to create supersedes any monetary compensation. Again, it’s just a topic of conversation. I too would love to live in a world where we’re guided by the open-source ethos but we have to make some compromise and see the world in a macro lens and really ask ourselves the viability of such an idea.

  • jsp507

    Ownership is both an interesting and controversial topic especially in relation to market economies.

    There´s a distinction between the following:
    #1 Using ideas for inspiration
    #2 Redesigning something to make it better
    #3 Stealing the product

    Inspiration drives learning. Everyone finds inspiration somewhere–architects use inspiration boards, artists and nature, etc. Everything is always built upon something else because our worlds are based on relation and it´s borderline idiotic to deny that. There is value in inspiration and it can be argued that individuals should receive micro-payments when someone shares a photo or article on their a social media site such as Facebook and the “inspiration object” gets re-shared. See–>
    People give and take inspiration all the time for free…

    It is important to consider how to design for improving ownership relationships. Capitalism is not sustainable–it doesnt and will not always work. It is not designed to change. As a consequence, the “Commons” as Jon references have become less valuable in recent history.
    We are a generation of freelancers and makers–what does this mean for capitalism?

    Ownership can be an incredibly stubborn thing. For example, in the EU, once you have a patent you must fight to keep your patent over the years or else you will lose it–this is total shit and is a symptom of a broken ownership system…

    Open source software is for the best. At the design firm I worked for in Denmark we were completely transparent about our influences.

    When it comes to art I don’t think that art when placed out of context is a violation to the subject. Though I think a lot of artists criticize the emergence of “mashup” as a form of creative abuse and the death of authenticity. The value I do find with mashup art and music is that a variety of perspectives on one subject is essential to evolution- change and growth–the social phenomenon allows for new angles that help enable discovery.

  • I liked Jon’s interpretation of Lethem’s article and the insightful comments in this thread.

    It looks to me like this is what Nancy was trying to get us to do from day one: develop a better sense of community by sharing conversation and ideas. (Who knew?)

    If we view plagiarism as lifting without credit (stealing) and representing someone else’s work as your own, that’s one thing. Using other artist’s ideas to develop new work is partly how culture evolves.

    I once had occasion to raise an issue with a student’s thesis project: He knowingly copied an early experimental work of John Cage’s (including his text!) and presented it as his own. Fortunately (unfortunately?) I was the only one present who knew of the work and raised the question. Before his academic dismissal he said, “Originality in the arts is highly overrated.”

    Really? That’s what you have to say for yourself after $X thousands of dollars and years of your life in an MFA program? Seriously?

    Was I correct in exposing fraud? Or should I have left the situation alone? John probably would not have minded, but he was no longer around to ask. (And no, P.S., BTW, John Cage was NEVER “apathetic” in his choice of process or anything else in his life.) It really bothered me to see pioneering work -by an artist whom I knew and respected- cavalierly appropriated and presented by someone else as “their” work.

    This event has troubled me for years. Not so much for my action; but about how some people approach art, artists, and art making. While one can argue the case for bad art (it makes all the other work look good!) an argument can also be made for the responsible creation of work with integrity.

    “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” -Beckett

    And that is the challenge some artists take on.

  • Jon "Wasserman"

    Contrarian indeed. I am surprised that your defense of economic stability cites first and best the Pharmaceutical racket. Why indeed would Big Pharma pour the money into research for “curing” ailments and diseases if their ownership of these cures and remedies could be subverted or devalued by generic knock-offs? Well, even in the current environment with generics, they stand to profit greatly because they have the initial capital to mass produce and distribute vastly. And they build in other economic mechanisms like branding and marketing to seduce customers into purchasing their products over their cheaper competitors. Is that not part and parcel to Free Market Economy? Guaranteeing these Pharmaceutical companies wide-net protection over their research and products enables them to game the system for unfair advantage thereby buttressing monopolies, disabling diversity of explored ideas, and preventing easy and affordable access for nearly all people worldwide. With these protections monopolies, Pharmaceutical companies are able to lobby and garner special privileges like marijuana research, mass marketing data-proven placebos and developing products whose side effects require the acquisition of other numerous pharmaceuticals. From there it is a short step from genetically modified seeds and the control of clean water. But this diverts the conversation down a different path.

    I met with Tom Igoe this semester to ask him how Open Source plays with Capitalism. He asked me why I don’t build my own stereo, or Arduino for that matter. I could. I should. Well, it’s possible. But if I put a dollar amount on my time and energy, perhaps the volume or deadline required for my project makes doing it myself cost-ineffective. Or maybe I just won’t make one as reliable as if I bought it. This is a case where the product’s openness does not hurt the patent owner. Robitussin is still fit to compete even though people buy Wal-Tussin.

    Another danger of corporate patent protection is that dedicated research funding will tend to skew the lens from which the research effort is perceived. For example, there is more time and money spent giving lab rats diabetes so that scientists can discover a medicine that will reduce the effects of Type II diabetes then there is on researching a larger quantity and diversity ways to prevent diabetes behaviorally. Imagine what the ripple effect would be if Americans en masse, receded or eliminated their intake of animal protein and corn syrup alone. Who would buy diabetes medicine? And “what incentive would they have to spend billions of dollars in research to find a cure for” Diabetes?

    This is where the ethos behind GitHub becomes relevant. If we conceive of copyright and patent ownership within the framework of open, non-linear research vs the threat of having the recipe stolen, we can contribute more progress and access of yield to a broader market of consumers. I guess what I’m asserting, verbosely, is that the benefits outweigh costs. Or do you think they only outweigh the benefits when your agenda is to serve the people over the owners? I’d argue that there is still opportunity for profit, thought the scope or scale may be different. There is a reason Tollhouse prints their cookie recipe on the bag.

  • Nancy

    An important discussion…..

  • Colin Narver

    “a variety of perspectives on one subject is essential to evolution- change and growth–the social phenomenon allows for new angles that help enable discovery.”

    I couldn’t agree more with this statement. What bothers me is when artists become hesitant or afraid to stand firm behind their perspectives. If your art uses another artist’s work to further your own direction or discovery, that she be lauded. What is cowardly and shameful are artists that regurgitate something already created and boldly proclaims it to be entirely novel.

    Although the Jackson Five wrote the famous pop song, “I Want You Back”, Kanye West’s sample of the track for “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” enabled the creation of an entirely different work of art that was only possible by the inspiration from the predecessor’s foundational groove—and The Jackson Five are clearly attributed within the liner notes. I wouldn’t dream of calling this work a mash up for it honestly takes one clearly attributed color tone and soaks the rest of the canvas in a totally different inverted pallet; one clearly grounded in lyrical storytelling more than on melodic progression.

    Yes, Picasso said “good artists copy, great artists steal”, but the theft he was advocating and admitting to was one that was clear in its evolutionary necessity. If Picasso hadn’t studied with Georges Braque and made so many similar cubist studies, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”, the transcendent application of foundational cubist methodology turned on its head and forced through a filter of new found intimacy, may never have exisited.

    The funny thing is, in some ways it really just comes down to the quality of the reinterpretation. If you are going to clearly appropriate another artist’s clear work or style into your art, it has to be a means of achieving an end goal or objective that otherwise wouldn’t be attainable. In fact, ripping samples from recognizable hit songs from the past lays an even greater burden upon the artist to transcend these indulgences in order to execute an idea that is greater than the sum of his parts—lest he face immense ridicule from peers and critics alike. Jay-z/Kanye were able to do this. Clearly, time and again, so was Picasso.

    Lethem writes, “Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced. “ I love this. With our eyes open, its hard to not gravitate towards what moves you. As long as the source of your admiration leads to the development and translation of an “act never experience” into creation, we are all better for it.

  • Esteban

    Thank you Jon for responding. I would like to further elaborate on my initial comment and respond to your post. My viewpoint on the matter is from an economic viewpoint. I’m in no way protecting or advancing any agenda that the Pharmaceutical industry may have. I was and will continue to make the economic argument of incentives. Behavioral economist have for decades studied the change on people’s behavior wrought by economic incentives. For example, the cigarette tax in nyc along with the fines for smoking indoors has led to a large decrease in the number of smokers in nyc. We see the extra costs in pennies of choosing plastic over paper at the grocer or even more recently the ban on large soda containers. In the academic field, once a faculty member has tenure, what exactly is their incentive to teach well and be at the forefront in their field? Conscience, shame, respect and peer pressure may be the motivation necessary to continue doing well but without the threat of losing their job, will they? Case in point, teachers in the public school system. We can take heed in Adam Smith’s own words, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.” Big Pharma is only acting as any rational player would. They look out for their own preservation and financial advancement. I’m not condoning any of their illegitimate or morally questionable actions, whatever those may be, but bringing to light the manner by which most any big industry would act like. It’s not so much the marketing arm or the distribution mechanisms that big pharma has that makes them successful as it is the amount of money they have to hire the scientists that find breakthroughs in medicine. Big pharma has the money and the resources to spend billions of dollars on developing medicine for ailments that affect a large enough population that it ultimately makes financial sense to try and find a cure for. This may seem somewhat harsh or morally vapid but that’s the way business works. If the government wants to do the dirty work and find the cure for ailments then they should increase the number and dollar amounts of grants allowing all journal publications to be free and open to the public and give more power to the National Institute of Health (NIH) Big Pharma is private industry. They should be afforded the right to protect their invention. Now how long this protection should last we can definitely debate. It’s a matter of finding what’s a good enough time. Patent law is broken in this country but I do believe in at least the temporary protection of ones ideas for them to benefit on.

    Sticking with the Big Pharma and the idea of opportunity costs presented in the second paragraph of your post, I don’t think this to be a solid enough argument. Why would I spend billions of dollars on developing a drug for it to then to be copied by someone else for a fraction of a percentage of the costs i incurred. It’s as if I do all the homework that took me all week to do, then give it to another person for them to copy it an hour before class. Once is fine but if it becomes a constant occurrence, then I will stop doing the homework all together or stop sharing it.

    Oh and blame the agro lobby for forcing food manufacturers to use high fructose corn syrup. The agro lobby should have never been afforded the right to force a sugar substitute to infiltrate our food system. I do get your greater point in the third paragraph, though. It’s a delicate line to straddle between the morally right thing to do and helping those who need help vs enforcing the law. BUt that’s why I believe in government, at least a more transparent one, that allows an informed citizenry to know what’s going on and how legislative decisions affect citizen’s well being.

    I ultimately do agree on a overhaul in the way we think about patents and trademarks in this country. It does stifle creativity when the players involved have an everlasting grip on their research thereby impeding creativity and progression. For example If Apple had an ironclad patent in perpetuity on multitouch, and multitouch proved to be the best way to interface with a touchscreen, then we would be be doing ourselves a great disservice. Not to say Apple should not be afforded some protection, just not protection for an obscene amount of time.