Friday, September 9, 2011

Really long comments on someone else's blog post...

This started out being comments on Comic Book Grrl's blog post "When it comes to art, is it possible to cheat?" But a) her post was way back in April, and b) I didn't want to hijack her blog with a really long comment (that may or may not ramble a bit).

As a writer, photographer and artist, married to an intellectual property attorney, I have pretty strong opinions on "cheating" in art. Whether you're working in visual media or written word, you've been influenced by others. Some other writer/photographer/etc. has appealed to you, made a difference to you, and even if you don't copy their work directly, their influence has stamped something on your own creativity.

But is there intent? Is the the person intending to pass off someone else's work as their? Are they consciously defrauding their audience? This doesn't take into account the thousands of people who ripped something off the internet, changed it slightly, believing the incorrect idea that if they change a 10% of a work it becomes theirs. That's not fair use, that's copyright infringement, period. A romance author, Cassie Edwards, was called out not too long ago for having ripped off someone's research in her novels (as well as other plagiarized sources). She claimed that she didn't know she was supposed to cite sources. I call bullshit on that. And even if she didn't know (yeah, right...), ignorance of the law is no excuse. When you take an entire paragraph from someone else and slap it into your book (or paper, you Wikipedia-plagiarizing delinquents), you're stealing. When you take someone's photograph, trace it, and pass off the new art as your own, you're stealing. (For instance, Fairey's iconic Obama "Hope" poster was lifted from an AP photo.)

Plato wrote things claiming they were Socrates' words. He may have been trying to legitimize his own ideas claiming they were his teacher's, since Socrates already had standing in the ancient World of Nerds. Similarly, writers who put Shakespeare's name on their plays might have been capitalizing on an established playwright's success. So are the suspected works plagiarized by the Bard, were other writers "borrowing" his name, or were they "ghostwritten"? Difficult to prove and know for certain, since all the actors in that particular play are long dead.

We are all influenced by the world around us, those of us who are artists (in whatever medium) probably more so because we're imaginative and we pay attention. There can be a pretty fine line between inspiration and theft, and intent doesn't even have to play a role. (Intent comes in at the "damages" part of the lawsuit, I believe, and can be hard to prove especially when you're dealing with someone who's already been dishonest about "their" work.) But here's some crazy thoughts: don't steal! don't pass off work someone else did as your own! if you're inspired by someone, claim it! For example:

"Clawing the Sky" ©2007 Wendy A. B. Whipple,
inspired by the works of Ansel Adams
There is some resemblance to "Dead Tree" by Adams, taken 60 years before I shot my own dead tree. However, I had not seen the Adams photograph at the time I took mine. Can I prove that I didn't see it before? No, you can't prove a negative (a little bit of a non sequitur, but it's funny). However, the works of Ansel Adams are in inspiration for me. I'm reasonably sure his estate is going to show up with their lawyers and beat me with sticks. Reasonably.

So to answer Comic Book Grrl's question "is it possible to 'cheat' [in art]"? Absolutely! It's cheating whenever you borrow someone else's creativity and claim it as your own. And using "inspired by" or "derivative" or "parody" is not always going to CYA (see this article about derivative works).

Go forth and exercise your own voice, express your own creativity, share your vision with the world. If you're inspired by those who have come before, recognize them in your artist's statement, in the acknowledgements in your book, in your official bio/liner notes/website. But don't cheat, don't steal -- you'd be mighty pissed if someone did it to you.

No comments: