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
    Stephen Pate, 31 Jan 2009 @ 3:56am

    Transformative work

    The modern over-priced musician / artist demands copyright protection. There would be no rock and roll without country and blues. In the blues, there was only copying, sharing and transforming. Arthur Craddup's Milk Cow Blues is only his version of the song. He stole it from other people who didn't like lawyers and courts. That process of cross-fertilization created the blues which a lot of over-paid rock stars transformed and made themselves rich on.

    Bob Dylan is a copyright freak yet almost everything he does is stolen from Shakespeare, Keats, the Bible, blues singers, country singers, his girlfriends. Poor Dave Von Ronk had Dylan steal his cool version of House of the Rising sun only to have Eric Burden steal it again and make a hit song.

    On Bob's last album he stole most of the songs including Muddy Waters' version of Rolling and Thumbling and put his name on it. Of course, fans get even by having hundreds of hours of Dylan bootlegs.

    Music transformed is real music and better because it grows faster. The stagnation of rock and roll occurs when walls are put up by silly people who want to retire after a few hits.

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