Intelligent Theft

“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

Ideas of plagiarism and sharing are not what they once were. The modern economics of digital goods, where one cannot escape the fact that reproduction and redistribution of one’s work is ridiculously easy, make attempting to commoditise and monetise any form of digital art an uphill struggle. It’s not a matter of favouring less proprietary ideas of digital ownership, we no longer have a choice.

This new economics is not unusual though, any peculiarity is with the old way. Copyright, a 20th Century concept, was designed to protect the ability for an artist to profit from their work, which obviously (if one only ever thinks in terms of the market) is the sole reason any artist gets up in the morning. This idea of stamping ownership on an idea for legal purposes has always stood counter to the very nature of our post-(post-post-)modernist era, where it is so difficult to find any idea that is truly original, standing, as we do, upon the shoulders of so many giants.

It is impossible to be entirely devoid of influence, it is in our nature to imitate. This is how children learn to speak, form a sense of moral responsibility, and develop their interpretations of societal norms; by copying their elders. Litigating against imitation shares the futility of attempts to outlaw sex.

Copyright laws have never stopped copying, they’ve just distorted our culture to favour that which can be legally reproduced. For example, while Oasis did not infringe the copyright of the The Beatles, they copied just about everything that was legally copyable about them, with healthy profits. Yet if they had sampled even a brief section of any one of their songs, they would have needed to clear it and pay large royalties. I would argue with anyone who claimed the insipid dirge of Oasis was more relevant to nineties music than the inventiveness of hip-hop (a genre built on sampling), yet we have a system that levies financial penalties against the latter rather than the former.

John Lennon is on record as saying the majority of Beatles songs started out with them trying to “do” another artist, mimicking their style. They would then develop these ideas and take them far beyond their root. Picasso too, apocryphally, said, “Good artists borrow. Great artists steal”. The message is: it’s not plagiarism as long as you make it your own. Stealing is wrong, yes, by any moral framework, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t recognise the value of intelligent theft.

-- 27th December 2010 --

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