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 @ 11:20am

    Re: Re: Derivative and transformative works

    You left out the part where a bad law stays on the books for years, screwing up lots of stuff, until someone with enough money says screw this and takes it to the Supreme Court where it may or may not be resolved.

    The Supreme Court does not have the authority to invalidate a "bad" law. It only has the authority to invalidate an unconstitutional law. So unless you can prove that the current copyright law somehow violates the Constitution (and not through some half-baked theory that copyright is immoral), then you will find no remedy through the Supreme Court.

    If you don't like copyright law because you think it is imprudent, then you need to elect Congressmen who will listen to you and agree with you.

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