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.


Barbara M. said...

Hi Edgar,

It's 3 in the morning, almost, and I read this and felt your anger. Well...right on man! You've made me so nervous that I'm linking everything. As we also know, although it doesn't matter here, people borrow things without knowing. Plus in this environment, we are all teaching one another all the time. So I might "borrow" Melinda's puffy little cloud. Would I have to acknowledge it, or could there be one in my sky, and would that make it all right? Thorny question.

Plagiarizing is not cool at all. I am glad you've written this, and I'll use it in my next English class, if you'll let me -- full credit to the author and all.

Mad props to you bro.


cohen labelle said...

Hi Edgar

Is this a hot potato? Durst I pick it up? Should I be wearing oven mitts?
I just want to draw your attention to an article by Jonathan Lethem called: The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism, By Jonathan Lethem. Maybe you'll give it a read. You can google it - it's in Harpers on the internet - that hotbed of promiscuous ideas.

Lethem, a novelist argues in favour of plagiarism – language and thought being common currency – nothing new under the sun – argues against originality etc I know that the web has made plagiarism rampant, teachers see it all the time in the work of their students.

I am still weighing my thoughts on this one, I haven’t honed my ideas yet. It'll take more than a minute or two methinks.


Edgar said...

Barbara, Thanks for the support. Don't be nervous. You're doing a good thing. Linking isn't just good etiquette, it's good for your blog ranking, and good for the web's usefulness, and helps your readers. Win-win-win-win.

"Borrowing" visual ideas is sometimes trickier to identify than an essay that simply paraphrases, but makes all the same points as someone else's.

I think the Shepard Fairey Obama poster issue of Fair Use remains a tough call. On one hand, there should be broad latitude for use of source material in making an original work. OTOH, the issue isn't whether Fairey could use the photo or not: it's that he didn't get permission, and he didn't give credit.

Which is what I'm sayin'.

Edgar said...

Hi cohen labelle,

I deliberately didn't go into details of what I regard to be plagiarism and what I don't in the post. I'd rather leave that to the "reasonable person" standards of common sense: And my interest is in encouraging bloggers to a) be courteous in sourcing and b) take a care that they aren't giving up what they'd prefer to retain rights to.

So, more explicitly: I posted this essay in response to an occasion in which a blog post was lifted, beginning to end, and paraphrased to the extent that examples were different, but the outline was identical, point for point. The conclusion and position was the same as Melinda's. It was not a "sampling," an "insignificant portion" or "quotation." It was also not independently generated... which was clear from comments and dates. It was plagiarized.

If this wouldn't bother you if it happened to you (and it is your right to release your work to the public domain), I'm simply pointing out that your lack of concern about it doesn't give you a license to do it to anyone else: you should assume that other people are holding onto their rights, unless they explicitly release them — or else you are liable to wind up at the hot end of someone's dismay.

Your pointing me to Lethem's article requires a bit of going into weedy details.

Lethem muddies the issue by conflating a number of things with a discussion about plagiarism, which aren't plagiarism:
1) unconscious copying or simultaneous claims
2) appropriation of elements to make a different, new whole
3) parody and satire
4) re-use in another form
5) piracy
6) inspiration vs. copying
... really, too many to enumerate.

I do agree with him on incidental points: current US Copyright law is overly strict, and inhibits creativity potentially more than it provides an incentive to creativity. This is because our IP law is written by corporations for power over consumers, not as a means of protecting the nurturing of creativity, which is its proper role.

And yes, it is a violation of the commons. A better source for a discussion on this is Thom Hartmann, who has been writing about it for years.

But many of the examples of that strictness that he cites are not genuine use of the law, but weak or false claims for the sake of intimidation, claims by corporations which have more money than people, and use the threat of suit, rather than a legitimate claim to have their way. (An example is the one about his Iranian filmmaker idol and the threat from the Salinger estate. Disney is another.)

[... post is too long, continued below:]

Edgar said...

To cohen labelle, continued:

But his notion that art is a gift does touch on my subject -- and may be what confuses you: "a gift conveys an uncommodifiable surplus of inspiration. "

True, yet, as well documented on Seinfeld, re-gifting cheapens the gift, and causes doubts about the sincerity of the re-gifter. Far better to credit the original gifter when you pass it on, so that the recipient doesn't believe that you really had the creative mojo to invent the gift in the first place, and come in for a fall down the road when they realize you had nothing to do with it, other than passing it along from someone before you.

He talks about using other's "methods and motifs... building upon another's work" as the problem he's trying to rationalize out of existence, but this is a straw man. In the proper use of these-- where a new conclusion is made, a response is visible, a re-envisioning into a unique point of view emerges— neither of these are my definition of plagiarism.

Here's where I agree wholeheartedly:
"People live differently who treat a portion of their wealth as a gift." I regard this as support for my position. Because, when I receive a gift from someone, I am not diminished by announcing to everyone everywhere when I meet them -- see this cool thing I got? I got it from this really generous person, and that person is [fill in the source]. On the other hand, I am a small person indeed when someone admires something I have received from someone else, and all I say is "Yeah, that's mine."

Proof of that is, at the end of his article, Lethem provides a key to his inspirations. He follows my prescription. And my appreciation of his article (and my estimation of his credibility) is enhanced by being able to learn about those diverse people and their works that he cribbed from, many of whom I wasn't familiar with until he brought them to my attention. For that, I owe him.

cohen labelle said...

Yikes you’ve written an exhaustive reply - I’m impressed and dizzy. Where do you get your phenomenal stamina – just asking?

Two things – I referred to the Lethem article mainly because I thought or hoped you might enjoy reading it – that it might broaden the discussion or veer it down another path as a not unrelated side trail.

Secondly don’t assume that I condone plagiarism, I don’t. At the back of my mind I am preoccupied with the concerns of artistic integrity and authenticity. I believe in honoring and acknowledging one’s sources of inspiration. I consider it a duty not just a mere nicety. Furthermore I don’t wish to regard artwork as just decorative or a commodity. We all come out of a tradition and it’s passed on - the least of which are the obligatory footnotes – now links. I must learn the link gismo.

I stumbled onto the Lethem article through talking to David, my husband after reading your post. He had listened to the Lethem article as a broadcast on CBC some weeks earlier. The reference to Nabokov’s Lolita caught his attention. Btw we've had a novel by Lethem - The Fortress of Solitude, sitting on our bookshelf for years – unread by either of us.
Now as I write my response to you, I have discovered another article - In Defence of Plagiarism by Jim Hamlyn • January 19, 2010
Which you may want to have a look at.
His blog is Thoughts on Art and Teaching.

I’ll close this by saying I think you’re great and I adore Melinda.

my croft said...

Actually, as I understand copyright law, you can't copyright an idea -- only the particular and idiosyncratic expression of an idea in some demonstrably final and physical form. If you could copyright an idea, I could claim, for example, "marriage" and then for as long as the ever-extended term of the right might last anything sung, said (and recorded), painted, sculpted, woven, printed, filmed, or whatever would belong to me.

Etiquette aside, what's interesting to me in the ongoing debates about copyright is that, in the Constitution, the founders limited the term of copyright to 14 years in order to encourage the inventor to reap some reward from his (always "his" in the Constitution), and then to move on. The idea was not to limit ownership to the creator in ever-renewing perpetuity but rather to encourage the generation of ideas and -- most important -- their relatively swift diffusion into common use.

my croft said...

sorry -- that should be "his efforts" (always "his" etc.)

Melinda said...

You know, I just love the Venn Diagram. It's a hoot.

I have to say, writers get no respect. If a writer's words and ideas aren't honored, and we can assume like artists' work they are not, and if artists themselves don't honor their own ideas and work enough to speak out when pilfered, well, then everything is a muddle and it's a free for all.

Even though we are drowning in a sea of words and images, it's still nice to know that most do respect the original work/words of others.

It may be a bit of a compliment to be plagiarized, but it's also like saying that a bicycle thief had good taste to steal a really good bike. Doesn't feel good to the owner at all.

You could write so much more on this, but it would be great to see more watercolor too. How about both?

Edgar said...

Hi cohen labelle,

I think you're wonderful too, and I'm honored that you've entrusted this little discussion with your point of view and perspective.

I really did enjoy the Lethem article.

We all [should] struggle occasionally with questions of authenticity and integrity. Lethem's point, if I can be overly simplistic, is an obvious one: we all have a context, a milieu, and we cannot be outside of that. Creativity doesn't really happen out of nothing.

So, if we have a conscience, it should prick us once in a while, to ask whether we have taken enough steps away from the thing that triggered our inspiration, or if we really are just restating it.

Edgar said...

Hi My Croft,

Nice of you to stop by.

Here's a test: write a story about a boy wizard named "Larry Smotter" and see if you don't get a lawsuit. Ditto, a publish a picture of a black and white mouse with red pants. No matter how "anime" or "grunge" you draw him: Disney will send out a cease and desist order faster than you can sing "m-o-u-s-e."

On the point of ideas and copyright, I'm afraid you don't have a grasp of it at all. Copyright is absolutely about ideas being owned. [Literary ideas, specifically. Not patent ideas.]

Copyright covers both form of expression [i.e., style, organization and word choice] and the content [i.e., the ideas]. It does not provide protection for facts, nor for things in the public domain. "Many couples break up because of adultery" is a fact. You can't own it. "Marriage" is in the public domain. You can't copyright it, trademark it, or patent it.

On the issue of durability of copyright, you're free to argue [based on the Federalist papers or on a cultural necessity, or against a monopoly as a social evil—whatever] that the right has been extended too long. Frankly, I agree. However, the law is what it is today, and the rest is just ... wishing.

my croft said...

Copyright doesn't protect ideas per se -- it protects the formed expression of the idea and, if contested, measures it against similar ideas for degree of similarity and precedence of expression. It does protect the selection and organization of facts into some physical form -- such as a writing or an image. Law is about things that can be measured and/or quantified.

So I, or you, could copyright the sentence "Many couples break up because of adultery" -- the sentence being the tangible expression of the fact/idea, but not the fact/idea itself. Which is why, for example, cryptomnesia was not a defense against the claim that "My Sweet Lord" was so similar to "He's So Fine" that it did not constitute a separate and original expression. And why (aside from the low quality of the writing) "The Wind Done Gone" suddenly became a "parody" when the Mitchell estate objected to the appropriation of Rhett and Scarlett. And why the many variations of the Romeo and Juliet story thrive -- provided that they don't have the Jets and the Sharks at odds over a girl named Maria.

The question becomes "how close is too close?" but it is also possible to fetishize attribution too enthusiastically. It's big question, especially now in the Internet ag.

Diane Hoeptner (hep-ner) said...

Sweet rant and I wish I had time to read the comment section too! It's been a while since I visited, will be back later!!

J. Hamlyn said...

Hi Edgar,

Interesting post - I found it because one of the comments mentions to a post I made back in January on the same subject. Readers of this discussion might also be interested in an excellent presentation by Larry Lessig over on here:



J. Hamlyn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Prabha N. said...

"Stay safe, use the same colors that others have done if you want to get approval or sell." If you are a graphic/web designer or a traditional artist, the above line comes true most of the time, whether i like it or not. An interesting post Edgar.

Tina Steele Lindsey said...

Interesting post Edgar. I've thought about writing a similar post on occasion, just haven't had the mindset or time to address it.

Thank you for your recent helpful words regarding blogger stats, I really appreciated it.

Karen Appleton said...

Hi Edgar,
So nice to see someone up in arms about this issue!!

Before I started my blog I was super naive in thinking that most people wanted to be original... that they painted or worked because of a need to communicate or understand some personal idea. I guess I thought that was just the point of being an artist.

Thank you for this post!

Paul Woods said...

Da Vinci was not worried about people stealing his ideas , he thought if people were so smart and brilliant they could have a new idea every morning and it was only the talentless that argued about ownership of an idea. I heard if you change an image slightly it becomes your even if you found it in the public domain - what do you think of that ?

Edgar said...

The last I checked, the rulings on this subject say that unless you change an image substantially, then you have not created an original work, which would be the criterion for claiming it as 'your own.' More accurately, you are claiming 'fair use.'

In creating an original work derived from a work in public domain, I understand that you can then hold a copyright on the new work (but again, I'd expect the standard is 'substantial difference'). Obviously, simply reproducing the public domain work doesn't make it yours, as would be the case if I posted a photo from a US Government source (public domain), on my blog, and you downloaded my blog post to your computer... in downloading and viewing the image, you have just made a 'copy' of the original file, on your computer-machine. It is not copyrightable by you, Paul.

As for Da Vinci: I have no idea how one would know what Da Vinci thought about plagiarism, him being dead so many years. He certainly predates copyrights as ensured in the US Constitution. But copyrights (and patents) are not intended to protect your ownership of an idea: they protect your work product from exploitation by others, who are not the originator. The right to benefit financially from publication of copyrighted material accrues to the owner of the copyright, for the purpose of protecting the owner's right to gain from distribution of it. That's why copyrights and patents expire: they are intended to be a season of protection for the creative laborer, in which he or she can get benefit from the sweat of their brow before someone else can make financial use of the same idea. And the reason is to provide an economic incentive for creative endeavor.

That's why works in the public domain have little value, financially, in comparison to protected works.

Plagiarism is just the sheer bloody-minded gall of acting as though an idea that you lifted off of someone else is your own. It's a lie, and shameful. Go get your own idea, for crying out loud, or ask Da Vinci to give you one of his, if he has some laying around to spare.

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