Where culture comes from

By Nick Holmes on November 24, 2006
Filed under Copyright, Free culture

I can’t do better than quote verbatim from Jack Schofield in the Guardian Technology Blog:

Over at Slate, Paul Collins makes the reasonable point that lots of examples of plagiarism may well come to light as more old works are digitised for Google Book Search. I should hope so! What he doesn’t point out is that previous generations of artists have not had the ludicrously restrictive views of copyright and originality that the giant mercenary copyright holders are forcing on us today.

All our most creative people have always picked up stuff from everywhere – including giants such as Shakespeare, Herman Melville, Ezra Pound and James Joyce – and made it their own. As Pablo Picasso said: “Bad artists copy. Great artists steal.”

If creative people had, for the past 2000 years, been obliged to work under the sort of insane conditions that are increasingly being applied today, we wouldn’t have very much culture at all.

I doubt if this is news to anyone, but if it is, try Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity (2004) by Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig. You can download it free from http://www.free-culture.cc/freecontent/


Influence, homage, quotation, allusion, appropriation, recontextualisation, pastiche, etc.. All art words for copying, but usually for copying with a point. The art world has a measure of originality which is distinct from that of copyright, to the extent that I tend to the view that the two are incompatible. I wrote a post on this at http://nearlylegal.co.uk/blog/archives/54 on contemporary visual art

Incidentally, Schofield’s quote from Picasso is itself of dubious authenticity. Here are some various attributions

A good composer does not imitate, he steals.
- Igor Stravinsky
Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.
- Pablo Picasso
Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.
- T.S. Eliot and/or Lionel Trilling

by Contact on 27 November 2006 at 9:08 pm. #

I’ve re-read your post. I’m not sure “compatible” is the right word. Copyright might be less relevant to the “plastic arts”, since as you say the idea is usually more important than any similarities in the representation, but surely most artists would not want their work blatantly ripped off and commercially exploited. How are they to be protected?

by nickholmes on 30 November 2006 at 6:13 pm. #

Actually, the second post on art & copright was probably more relevant to your post/quote, as it considers the clash between an appropriative art practice’s view of what constitutes a common culture, or useable source and that of copyright law. My sense was that there is a twofold failing in the relation between creative practices and copyright.

As you say, the current formulations of copyrightable work are of doubtful protection to much current art on the one hand.

On the other hand, current art practices tend to view the image/sound/text sphere as more or less direct source material with no thought to the restrictions of copyright. If copyright were strictly enforced in the way it increasingly is with music and film, then the result would be the extension of cultural desert that your post warns about.

To borrow from our dear home secretary, the copyright regime appears as not fit for purpose.

(The second post is at http://nearlylegal.co.uk/blog/archives/59 but I don’t want to appear too self promotional…)

by Contact on 30 November 2006 at 11:13 pm. #