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Response to: The Ecstasy of Influence, A Plagiarism By Jonathan Lethem

Is it ever politically correct to label a work of art plagiarism? Aren’t most people trying to do something to contribute to society through their own ways of interpretation? Unless the work is blatantly copied word by word or eerily similar from another author, is it possible to brand ideas? What are the sources of ideas if not inspired from the basic human needs of living, breathing and art making?

I dare say nature is the ultimate true artist. I am always immensely moved by nature and the wildly imaginative variations that it takes on. Great works have been erected and inspired by nature. I have had the great fortune of seeing many Gaudi architecture while I was in Spain; the first time I went to Casa Batlló and La Sagrada Família, I was overcome with emotions at the sheer fact that his structures were inspired by the structure of leaves. He had taken the information necessary and translated it into his own language. As Gaudi had once said, “The architect of the future will build imitating Nature, for it is the most rational, long-lasting and economical of all methods.

After all, how can a work of art compare to an organically manifested bioluminescent creature in the deep sea?

104 comments to Response to: The Ecstasy of Influence, A Plagiarism By Jonathan Lethem

  • William Lindmeier

    The idea that architects will build imitating nature seems to becoming more and more true in some cases. With computer aided design and generative processes, many modern buildings or facades have been “grown” into existance. That’s a far cry from living, but it takes on a more natural and (hopefully) interesting aesthetic. Although it does sometimes look odd surrounded by boxy traditional structures.

  • Sonia "Li"

    I think what is really genius about Gaudi is that he not only takes the aesthetics of nature but also the structures of nature, and puts a spin on form, texture, silhouettes and colors. He transformed the language of nature into his own. It blows my mind to think about these beautiful houses that were once living habitats. To live in a house inspired by the sea would be a dream come true. Park Güell in Barcelona is also really amazing, it was never finished due to politics, but nevertheless incredible. To see and be amongst the structures of man-made and natural genius brought tears to my eyes.

  • Nancy

    didn’ t architects and people in general build with nature/imitating nature before the industrial rev… before the carpentered world? See the book Architecture without Architects by Bernard Rudofsky

  • Liz Khoo

    When I read this article, I was kind of relieved and kind of discouraged. I mean, it’s the same kind of feelings I had when reading Tom Igoe’s blog post about the dozen-or-so buckets that physical interaction work tends to fall into. Like, damn okay so everything has been done already.

    I see that as being a big part of being at ITP and in what a supportive environment it is: yes, it is OKAY to do something that has been done before, with your own spin on it. 99% of the time an idea or product or whatever that is recognized as great is not “original” but just a better-executed, more refined version of an idea.

  • Sonia "Li"

    Thanks for the suggestion Nancy the book sounds great!

  • Sonia "Li"

    Yes I agree. I think a lot of people are genius at what they do, even if it is taking an existing idea and making it better. Just because it is a similar idea doesn’t make it less valid. Refinement in itself is an art form.

  • Karl Ward

    Sonia, in response to your first question (“Is it ever politically correct to label a work of art plagiarism?”), I am reminded of the great quote about how to identify hardcore pornography: “I know it when I see it” (from US Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart, ref: ). This is the problem of plagiarism–if a majority of a community can’t agree on what it is, then how can that community enforce any rules or laws about it? That doesn’t stop a great many people from pulling the plagiarism card at (or even before) the first opportunity. There was a great string of plagiarism lawsuits when Coldplay’s Viva La Vida came out. First, guitarist Joe Satriani sued Coldplay (ref: ). Then Cat Stevens threatened to sue Coldplay as well (ref: ). I found the whole thing hilarious, because I don’t like Coldplay, but also it’s an indictment of an information economy on the entirely wrong track.

    Of course it’s not as ridiculous as John Fogerty being sued for plagiarizing himself, which actually happened (ref: ). This case went all the way to the US Supreme Court.

    I loved the Lethem article. As information becomes more and more the currency of our economies, I’m half-expecting someone to buy the rights to the Bible and then add an eleventh commandment, “Thou shalt not incorporate another’s work into thine own without license” or some such nonsense. Which reminds me of a great Dan Bern song, “Lightning Jazz / Hey God,” which must be listened to in its entirety at or before your earliest convenience. Unfortunately, all I could find online were the lyrics, so you should read those. Here:

    Thou Shalt Not Be Mean To A Moose.

  • Sanniti

    There are a lot of thoughts put forth very intelligently by Jonathan Lethem here. My favourite is the one on art being derivative. Back in school (probably middle school) I heard someone talk a lot about originality- how we should be creative and “use our uniqueness to create something extraordinary”. I guess I took the person’s thoughts quite seriously; for a long time I was extremely dissatisfied with all the assignments and work I did, since they clearly resembled something, done by someone, somewhere in this world (and you can’t be not influenced by work around you all the time!). But then during undergrad, realizing I was clearly incapable of ‘inventing’ something at that stage, I decided to try out the most banal projects. They, naturally, turned out to be not-as-easy-as-I-thought-they’d-be. Additionally, they taught me a lot more than my frustrating & over-ambitious projects. Since then I’ve been slowly un-learning my originality craze..
    A lot of projects at ITP are a proof as to how simple, yet clever, modifications to an existing idea can lead to a beautiful piece of art.

    I also loved Lethem’s view on how appropriations of an artwork help in keeping the artwork alive through generations.

  • Tarana Gupta

    Is copying theft or innovation?

    Recently I have turned into a big fan of google news. Last evening when I was finally done reading all the articles on plagiarism, copyrights..etc and was about to write this blog post- happened to stumble upon a hilarious critic review by Wes Jones on “Iphone 5 lacks featues” on through my google news feeds. I would like you guys to read it before going any further.

    Here it goes:

    I knew I had to get an iPhone once all my friends got their iPhones. It was a tough decision, having to add a $30 data plan to my already steep phone bill, but you can’t put a price on fitting in and being accepted.

    Everything changed after I bought the iPhone 4S. Not having my old Motorola Razr really boosted my self-confidence. No longer do I cringe when I ask for a girl’s number and while having to whip out my flip-phone.
    That was two years ago. Recently, the Apple Gods have smiled upon me, announcing the release of a new iPhone, just in time for my upgrade. I spent months watching YouTube concept videos of the iPhone 5 and felt like a kid on Christmas Day when Apple CEO Tim Cook unveiled the new iPhone on Wednesday. I knew the new phone was going to blow my expectations. It had to, considering the iPhone 4S was kind of a let down. Does anyone even use Siri when they’re not showing it off in front of their friends?
    After watching the unveiling of the new phone, I was shocked. I didn’t know what to tweet; I didn’t even know what to do with my life. It made that big of an impact. The iPhone 5 didn’t live up to the hype that has been surrounding it.
    First of all, the new phone doesn’t have a self-destruct button if the wrong password is entered too many times. It doesn’t come with the ability to create a laser keyboard for taking notes in class or any hologram features for that matter. If they can bring Tupac back as a hologram, surely Apple could have infused the technology somewhere in the phone.
    But enough with what the phone doesn’t have. Let’s discuss the new features. While there aren’t many, I’m painstakingly trying to get excited about them so I can feel proud of my new iPhone and the five hours spent waiting to pre-order it Friday morning.
    Apple says the iPhone 5 is 20 percent lighter than its previous generations. Hopefully, now the phone is light enough so when I drop it every weekend, it floats to the ground like a feather, thereby making it shatter-proof.
    The retina display on the phone is 0.5 inches larger, making the screen size 4 inches. This allows for many things. Instead of having four rows of apps on the screen, the new phone can fit five! This will cut down on scrolling time between screen pages, allowing me to access apps faster. The bigger screen also means video quality will be better, which allows for more time watching BroBible and Dom Maezetti videos.
    Apple has continued to add to its camera features on the new iPhone, which I’m very excited about. Ever since Instagram came out, I have become a self-proclaimed professional photographer of food and sunsets. The new camera features a five-element lens, which will only boost my photography skills.
    The best feature of the new phone, however, is the new dock connector. This renders all previous chargers obsolete. I believe this makes the new phone stand out from all the others as superior. I can’t wait to carry around the new charger to my friends’ house letting them know that only my charger fits the phone. Anyone who has an Apple product knows (and loves) that feeling of superiority.
    Despite the new iPhone struggling to meet high expectations, Apple is sure to sell millions of units. I suggest everyone pick up the new phone once it goes on sale Sept. 21. Because if you don’t have an iPhone, you don’t have an iPhone.

    I and my husband have been fighting (debating 😀 as we call it) on this topic for days now and both of us kind of agreed/disagreed on: Apple’s stagnating innovation magic. And now as a part of Video n Sound assignment I m finally getting to comment on it.

    Recently as we all know, San Jose jury awarded Apple Inc. a whopping $1.05 billion in damages. Apple had accused Samsung of copying its intellectual property, including its very broad design patents for rectangular “electronic devices.” And Apple wants to use those patents to stop its competitor from selling items like the new (rectangular) Galaxy tablet and (rectangular) Android-based smartphones.

    As we read this blog post of mine, we might realize that we are reading on a device which is very much rectangular and possibly wasn’t invented by Apple 😀 and existed a lot before than apple existed.

    Then Apple created its versions of a rectangular reading platform. Yet now Apple has succeeded in suing Samsung for much the same thing: copying a rectangular design. And this highlights a central issue in today’s innovation-based economy. What is the proper balance between competition and copying?

    Intellectual property law is based on the notion that copying is bad for creativity and innovation. It is usually cheaper to copy something than create something wholly new. If innovators are not protected against imitation, they will not invest in more innovation.

    How can copying be beneficial?

    Because it can enable as well as prevent innovation.

    When we think of creativity and innovation, we usually picture a lonely genius , working really really hard, until he or she finally has an “eureka!” moment.

    In fact, innovation is often an incremental, collective and competitive process. It is critical to the creation of better things. Hence my argument: No competition for apple will result in devices like iPhone 5.

    Once we look, we see examples all around us. As mentioned in Jonathan Lethem’s The Ecstacy of Influence: A Plagiarism: If nostalgic cartoonist Roger Meyers had never borrowed from Fritz the Cat, there would be no Ren & stimpy show; without the Rankin/ Bass and Charlie Brown Christmas specials, there would be NO SOUTH PARK (WHICH WILL LEAD TO NO ERIC CARTMAN). Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” borrowed from earlier writers, and “West Side Story” in turn drew heavily from Shakespeare. This kind of copying and tweaking often leads to more choice in the marketplace, which can help in building authenticity, which is good for consumers. Copying can also drive the process of invention, as competitors strive to stay ahead. And copying can serve as a powerful form of advertising. Hence beneficial for our economic cycle and setting a trend.

    Nothing is original, as Kirby Ferguson says, creator of Everything is a Remix. From Bob Dylan to Steve Jobs, our most celebrated creators borrow, steal and transform.

  • Nancy

    Why is it so surprising that ‘everything’s been done”… the things all relate to being human and are created by humans. There are only 36 plots in all of literature ( and that’s a detailed list… some say it’s fewer than 10). The 19th c Industrial Revolution basically extended the reach/ability of our hands; the first half of the 20th c of our senses and the second half through to now, our mind/brain. Everything has been done, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to do it again. Sometimes a good idea to re-invent the wheel. The buckets are big schema/paradigms…the details of what you make are what makes them new, I think.

  • Nancy

    excellent and entertaining reply, Tarana.

  • Xinran

    Dylan’s case was not odd. There is a controversial singer in China called Yike Zeng, who is famous of her remarkable sheep voice, was accused of appropriating a piece of apparently less popular music, which would definitely not ring a bell without Yike’s song, that was published 6 years before Yike‘s piece Leo aroused wide attention in the old and young in China. Despite comparisons showing more than 80% similarity between the two songs, Yike insisted that she had not listen to that before. Meanwhile some people believe firmly in Yike’s innocence, saying that it would be unbelievable for a usual girl to listen to that unpopular piece at such a young age. There’s great possibility she just occasionally heard that song and unconsciously memorized it, then composed the song like that unintentionally. Would the hidden impression be accused of as appropriation?

    When I was in college, I was the graphic designer of several student societies. When I have no ideas of what to make in a poster, I usually search for the keywords on google to see bunches of related graphics that are actually inspiring. I would say that this reference way helped me a lot in design techniques based upon which original designing ideas grow and blossom. It’s like learning how to sing. Imitation is always good way at the beginning, but further ideas of the song should be your own. Watching and imitating are the very first steps a beginner should not and usually feel no shame to do but why does the issue get so complex and controversial when it comes to people with influences even we are not sure it is unaware memory or intentional grab and remix? And why are people so sensitive to the so called copyright that their tolerance of similarity is approaching to a level which is going to be lower than the current interest rate? Do we go too far in analyzing and comparing pieces of arts?

    Unlike copying inventions in the realm of pure science, copying ideas in the form of arts has always been hard to tell from reference, or unaware reference, and appropriation, not to mention the intersection of technology and liberal arts, where every experience seems to be more and more unified into the popular appetite. Originality is not a brand new thing like discovering the periodic table of elements. It is an attitude to improve, to change and to broadcast. Originality could be a complement to something already exists, or a different application of clichés. The transforming process itself proves originality. If you wish your idea could become a culture, then don’t fuss about the original copy and paste.

    But, if you want cash, it’s another story.