Originality & borrowing

Copyright is an issue which is constantly brought to the fore on the web today. Basically the speed of information exchange exacerbates the same underlying problem, and of course the plethora of individuals with nothing to say but an urge to say it contributes. I feel very strongly about the rights of authors and other creative people, as I'm sure do most people whose lives revolve around those endeavors. So I don't want to dwell on that, but recent exchanges on the issue bring to mind some thoughts on how "artistic borrowing" has been done in the past and how present changes might affect such "continuity" issues deeply.

I hesitate to say this, but plagiarism is ultimately judged on how successful it is. If the copy becomes more widely known and acknowledged than the original, the situation is done. Maybe in the future the original author can be given some credit, but the poseur will be the famous one. We see this clearly in the case of the often trite borrowing of Italian material by English composers in the very early seventeenth century. Since the revival of early music started most strongly in England, these composers will always be famous, even if we begin to appreciate the Italian models more today. While this situation is obviously lamentable in some ways, I am unsure as to how far one can regret it. After all, if the English production were not jump-started in this way, would there have been real repertory there, a Baroque era Academy of Ancient Music, and an early twentieth century revival? Things would be different, although I think we would have explored the music anyway. A similar situation holds true today among performers, where an interesting new performance idea is only made famous through someone else who borrows it. Here the conclusion is perhaps most clear, namely that popularization and the ability to mobilize forces cannot be undervalued. Still, the reader will often find me bristling at misattributions.

Well, I think such thoughts are always in the back of our minds, and serve to make attribution discussions nastier than they might otherwise have been. By that I mean that there are some real doubts, not about the authorship, but about the relative value added. I hesitate to say so, as I do not like the conclusion. One might even go so far as the cavalier remark that since artists are naturally driven to create, there is no incentive to respect them, since they are helpless against their own urges. That would be a statement from the perspective of society, but it is certainly at odds with the feeling of the individual artist. Similar sentiments apply to the "fair use" of work properly attributed, as the artist does not know what will appear next to it. For someone with such a strong personal connection to his work, placing it in a context considered unsuitable can be deeply repellant. For the compiler, it might be a fabulous thing. There can be quite a bit of incredulity on the part of both sides in such an interaction, and indeed I have experienced it myself (from the former point of view). This is my acknowledgement of the hard reality of the situation, although I am happy that we have some recourse for the artist to retain control of his work and by extension his life.

To return to the issue of borrowing, it has not always been so one-sided. Drawing again upon my favorite example of early Renaissance chansons, the reuse of material was particularly intensive while the people involved seemed to have viewed the situation as complimentary on both sides. Of course this was no facile borrowing either, but a real artistic contribution (although undoubtedly there were other examples which were not privileged for survival). Indeed, less literal borrowings are the heart of traditional art, as one must borrow forms or styles in some sense. That is where basic ideas such as "continuity" come into play. It is usually clear which combination of elements would simply be too personal, or rather not personal enough on the borrower's part. I cannot wholly refrain from this remark about suffering, which means something to some of us. And of course there is the matter of money, but such things are discussed too often today. Damage to someone's livelihood is one issue which our legal system is actually able to handle, although the artist frequently lacks the necessary killer instinct to go all the way. This is further motivation for cynical remarks, but such is not the intent here.


Although I advocate purity of tradition as a value worth preserving, thereby putting diversity in the form of a kaleidoscope, the sheer volume and variety of stimulus in our society is increasingly suggestive of collage. Elements of various styles are simply juxtaposed, if not intentionally, forming pleasing arrangements (as analogous to flowers, perhaps) and not modified as such. At some point, these collages become sophisticated enough that they are art in themselves, and indeed we already see some of this in the field of electronic music. I am ambivalent on the idea, but there is no doubt that conscious collage will become more & more prominent, especially given decreasing attention spans. It could be the dominant artistic form of the twenty-first century. That is a sobering thought. How originality might enter into collage design is rather easy to conceive, but what of the rights of the creators of the individual elements? It will be a challenge for the courts, but also a challenge for the ethical artist.

The Internet already presents us with some of these issues in the way that various pages can be linked together. From the standpoint of dispassionate information, there are more and less ethical ways to do it. But if we start thinking about combining pages in some artistic way (and the technology is really not up to that level now), some of the questions are different. The same is true of other sorts of collages made of sound bites from various musical performances, and these forms can overlap. I think there is a challenge to be flexible enough with rights to allow these creations to attain some level of quality, especially as they will become common regardless. Yet, I am not happy about the idea of my material being used in this way. I do expect to see more multilevel constructions in which individual elements collide less closely, as the entire context of presentation shifts. Then the personal challenge becomes how, within a collage culture, to make the individual flashes as vivid & distinct as possible.

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Todd M. McComb