[Originally posted to devaintArt Feb 11, 2007]
As digital artists we are faced with the questions and concerns of digital copyright every single time we post to the web. Visit any social site where art is commonly posted and you will find ongoing discussions ranging on everything from steps you can take to protect your work, sharing information on known violators, what you can do when you find your work has been copied, what constitutes fair use of your or other’s work, to sometimes even whether you are giving up your rights simply by posting to the site. Fortunately on many popular sites like deviantArt, Flickr, and MySpace, your rights are fully preserved (although deviantArt and Flickr both provide the option of choosing a less restrictive Creative Commons license).
It is that latter spirit, the Creative Commons notion that “Creativity and innovation rely on a rich heritage of prior intellectual endeavor”, in which I ask you to consider a story that challenges the very notions of copyright and plagiarism.
“[Copyright] is taken as a law, both in the sense of a universally recognizable moral absolute, like the law against murder, and as naturally inherent in our world, like the law of gravity. In fact, it is neither. Rather, copyright is an ongoing social negotiation, tenuously forged, endlessly revised, and imperfect in its every incarnation.” – Jonathan Lethem, “The Ecstasy of Influence” http://harpers.org/TheEcstasyOfInfluence.html, Harper’s Magazine Features
Lethem’s piece is an exploration of the vital role that “plagiarism” has had on art, and the dangers that the ever increasing stranglehold of copyright law present to creativity and culture. Much of what he provides as examples lean more toward the fair use end of the spectrum than on outright duplication, however even in that nebulous realm of cut-ups and mash-ups he examines the strangleholds that large corporations and organizations are exerting on the creative and cultural heritage which underlie nearly every aspect of modern culture. He presents the notion that all art is a gift to future art, and ultimately argues that all art is drawn from and built upon things which have come before. He does not suggest that we should give up the rights to our works, but asks us to reconsider how far those rights should really extend.