Thursday, April 29, 2010

Picasso was a sonofabitch

Picasso famously said "Good artists copy. Great artists steal."* No doubt his intent was either:
  1. ironical, or
  2. deliberately subversive, or
  3. referring to the fact that artists don't work in a vacuum, but build on each other's work
Unfortunately, the statement is—like so many things today, when ignorance is considered remedied by a Google search—easily bastardized and misread. I hope against hope that Picasso didn't mean to sanction stealing. He spent a lot of time disputing claims that Braque had a superior claim to cubism, so he could remain the 'inventor of cubism.' Surely, he understood the importance of being first.

In my day job, I work in the intangibles. What bean counters call "Intellectual Properties." [Actually, they just call it "IP." Because the only thing bean counters love as much as money is acronyms that talk about money.] That's right. I'm in Communications. Brands, trademarks, salesmarks, patents, copyrights... broadly speaking, ideas. My stock in trade.

Now, I assume that most of you are [blogging] artists. So, your work shows a broad overlap with my day job, in the great Venn Diagram of Job Descriptions in the Sky. And that means we've got something very important in common: we trade, whether for dollars or readers, in ideas, images, and words.

...To the wise, is sufficient

There have been movements in art that challenge the notion, the sanctity, of ideas as "belonging" to someone. I welcome those challenges. But so far, those challenges have failed, in that people continue to hold the notion that the work they produce belongs to them, until they give it up. Your paintings are yours until you sell them, give them away, or bestow them as an inheritance ... unless you explicitly grant a permission to reproduce it. They are automatically copyrighted, according to US Federal law.**

You actually don't even need a copyright symbol on it. You don't need to file a copy of it with the Library of Congress. These things help, but even without them the law is clear: it's yours.

Get it? Your words and ideas are yours. Your blog posts: yours. Your cool "hooks" to get people reading, and to come back: yours. The thumbnails of your art: yours. The gratuitous pictures of your cat, or snapshots from your painting outing: yours. And nobody else's. Here's the flip side:

If you didn't think of it and make it, it's NOT YOURS.

This is where I get ugly

Basically, there's no way to "borrow" an idea. If you use it, and you don't explain where you got it, that's "theft" of an idea, because there's no way to give it back if you've already given someone else the impression that the idea was yours. Every schoolchild knows this. It's the same as cribbing an answer off the desk next to yours. When you copy someone's idea, even if you change it a bit to look different... it's still copying. Cheating.

The proper word is plagiarism. It can be defined as:
... the stealing and passing off of the words or ideas of another as one’s own or using another person’s production without due credit to its source...
Plagiarism can get your blog removed from the web, can get you fired, can ruin your professional reputation ... simply put: steer clear of it.

But, but, but...

"... I always get the greatest ideas from things I see and read!" Of course you do. Everyone does. This is probably what Picasso meant. What happens if you read or see something great, and that gets you thinking, and you get an idea that builds on it? That's creativity. [It's still polite to acknowledge where you started from.]

But if you want to "use" someone else's thought, give some attribution. On the blogosphere, that's as easy as a mention couched in words such as, "I was reading this great post over on so-and-so's blog, and it got me thinking. They were talking about the great painting instructor they had, and that reminded me of my favorite painting instructor... etc." The linkback is not required, but is expected under etiquette.

It's that easy to be polite, and steer clear of cheating. So, rules to be an artist by:
  • Own your stuff.
  • Own up to what you don't own.

Dude, why the lather?

  1. I want you to be able to hold on to what is rightfully yours.
  2. Melinda had one of her posts plagiarized recently.
  3. Authenticity matters. Especially among artists.

* I've found lots of attributions of this to Picasso, but I can't find a single citation.
**I am not an attorney. Consult one if you have questions.