Yes, Artists Build On The Works Of Others... So Why Is It Sometimes Infringement?

from the it's-called-inspiration dept

Following on our story the other day about copyright questions concerning the "appropriated art" that became the iconic Obama campaign poster, the Wall Street Journal has an interesting article exploring the fine line between derivative works and transformative works in the art world. As you probably know, derivative works (e.g., making a movie out of a book) are considered copyright infringement, but transformative works are not.

Of course, how you define a transformative work is a big open question. The article doesn't discuss it here, but for some unexplained reason, courts have mostly determined that there is no such thing as transformative works in music -- so sampling is mostly seen as infringement. The article, instead, focuses on visual artwork, though, where courts have ruled in different ways, depending on the artwork -- leading many to consider this to be a "gray area."

It probably won't surprise many, but to me the whole concept seems silly. The history of creativity has always included the concept of taking the ideas of others (those who influenced you) and building on them. That's the history of storytelling. It's the history of joke telling. It's the history of writing. It's the history of music. It's the way art is created. And that's a good thing. Art never springs entirely from 100% original thought. It's an amalgamation of what else is out there -- put together in a new way. What's even more ridiculous is that, in almost every one of these cases, it's difficult to see how the "original" complaining artist is even remotely "harmed" by the follow-on artists. If anything, it's likely that the later art would only draw more attention to the original artist. It's just that we've built up this ridiculous culture of "ownership" of ideas, where people think that someone else doing something creative by building upon my work is somehow "stealing." It's a shame, and it's incredibly damaging to our cultural heritage -- which, of course, is exactly the opposite of what copyright law is supposed to be about.

Filed Under: appropriation, art, copyright, derivative, inspiration, transformative


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  1. identicon
    Willton, 2 Feb 2009 @ 11:05am

    Re: Re: Sampling

    I think Weird Al Yankovic should be considered transformative, yet he samples the entire song.

    No he doesn't; he parodies the song. Sampling involves wholesale copying of a portion of a sound recording and using it as it is in a different work. Parody involves taking the score of the original song and changing the lyrics or music in such a way to poke fun at something, perhaps even the original song. One involves taking pieces of an unchanged song; the other involves making substantive changes to the underlying work.

    Further, parody is recognized as a fair-use defense to infringement.

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