Sunday, 25 February 2007

The importance of plagiarism

I've been reading Eddie Campbell's brilliant blog and not so long ago he had an interesting post on Lichtenstein, which was followed up by even more interesting post on plagiarism and its merits.

'Merits of plagiarism?', I hear you cry. That's what I said, too, but it seems that there is actually a growing belief that the current trend of severely punishing those who copy other's work is unnecessary, damaging to our culture and, indeed, that the need for absolute "originality" in art is a modern obsession.

Right now there are websites set up "exposing" so called plagiarists, and they have a lot of public support and sympathy. You Thought We Wouldn't Notice is one such site, and inside you can find lots of examples plagiarism, ranging from questionable influence to outright theft. The idea behind sites like these is to help protect an artist's ideas and intellectual rights, by "naming and shaming" those caught stealing. It sounds like a good idea, but others are beginning to argue that we are taking the idea of intellectual properly too far, and the explosion of easily copyable digital media looks like it must just push this debate to boiling point.

Roy Lichtenstein has been accused of stealing from other artists from a "lower art-form" during the creation of his famous "pop-art" paintings; taking comic book panels and blowing them up to fill a canvas. It was an action that still raises ethical questions today; Did Lichtenstein owe all his success to the uncredited authors of the original comics? Comic book artist Dave Gibbons has hinted that he is less than impressed with Lichtenstein's work, "Roy Lichtenstein's copies of the work of Irv Novick and Russ Heath are flat, uncomprehending tracings of quite sophisticated images".

Art teacher David Barsalou, has created a website that allows people to see the original comic book panels, side-by-side with their Lichtenstein appropriations. Deconstructing Lichtenstein [go look at it!] gives us a unique view into Lichtenstein's process of creation, and Barsalou is not impressed with his findings; "The critics are of one mind that [Lichtenstein] made major changes, but if you look at the work, he copied them almost verbatim. Only a few were original." Looking at the comparisons, it's difficult to argue with Barsalou or Gibbons, Lichtenstein clearly did copy, often with technical inferiority, exactly what he saw.

So does this mean that one of the most influential and revered artists in recent times was a fraud?

"Consider this tale: a cultivated man of middle age looks back on the story of an amour fou, one beginning when, travelling abroad, he takes a room as a lodger. The moment he sees the daughter of the house, he is lost. She is a pre-teen, whose charms instantly enslave him. Heedless of her age, he becomes intimate with her. In the end she dies, and the narrator—marked by her forever—remains alone. The name of the girl supplies the title of the story: Lolita.

The author of the story I've described, Heinz von Lichberg, published his tale of Lolita in 1916, forty years before Vladimir Nabokov's novel. "

Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is considered one of the most important novels of the 20th century.

Even fans of Indiana Jones and Star Wars must be aware that both these classic pieces of pop-culture borrowed heavily from earlier works. Without Haggard's hero, Alain Quatermain from King Solomon's Mines, there would be, ultimately, no Indiana Jones, and despite George Lucas's claims, Star Wars owes more to Flash Gordon than to inspiration drawn from Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

"If nostalgic cartoonists had never borrowed from Fritz the Cat, there would be no Ren & Stimpy Show; without the Rankin/Bass and Charlie Brown Christmas Specials, there would be no South Park; and without The Flintstones—more or less The Honeymooners in cartoon loincloths—The Simpsons would cease to exist. If those don't strike you as essential losses, then consider the remarkable series of “plagiarisms” that links Ovid's Pyramus and Thisbe with Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, or Shakespeare's description of Cleopatra, copied nearly verbatim from Plutarch's Life of Mark Antony and also later nicked by T. S. Eliot for The Waste Land. If these are examples of plagiarism, then we want more plagiarism."

What does all this mean, then? Is plagiarism really a good thing? The above quotes are taken from Jonatham Lethem's article The Ecstasy of Influence, which cleverly constructs an excellent argument for the importance of plagiarism and ultimately the need for a change in public opinion on the subject.

For most, this is a concept that is hard to swallow, but if we return to Roy Lichtenstein again, and take another look a David Barsolou's Deconstructing Lichtenstein, we find that although copied verbatim, you have to remember that these works of art are removed from their original context; most likely an image the size of a postage stamp sandwiched between pages of trashy, teenage melodrama. Lichtenstein realised that by taking these solitary panels out of context, he could change their meaning, and that alone, they could have impact far greater than they had originally.

By taking what was seen as a "lower art-form" and forcing people to stop and look at it, it became clear that art was all around us, if we were prepared to look at it in a particular way.

If we look at Drowning Girl (1963) we can see that although, technically Lichtenstein's copy is nearly identical technically, that, in the context of a comic book story, the panel would lose all power. Taken away from its origins, shown by itself, and blown up, it evokes totally different feelings in the viewer. We see a girl drowning; an image of emotional suffocation, refusing to ask for help. It evokes feelings of a woman trapped in a male dominated world. It's a much more powerful image.



Lichtenstein took the original work, altered it (by changing its context and cropping it) and changed it into something much better, way beyond the technical limitations of the original.

Great artists don't always come up with something completely original, but rather they can take something existing and show it to us in a new way, or re-work it so it improves on the original.

The idealist, R. G. Collingwood, has some pretty far out ideas when it comes to art and ownership, but they open the doors to new ideas:

"To begin by developing a general point already made in the preceding chapter: we must get rid of the conception of artistic ownership. We try to secure a livelihood for our artists (and God knows they need it) by copyright laws protecting them against plagiarism; but the reason why our artists are in such a poor way is because of that very individualism which these laws enforce. If an artist may say nothing except what he has invented by his own sole efforts, it stands to reason he will be poor in ideas. If he could take what he wants wherever he could find it, as Euripides and Dante and Michelangelo and Shakespeare and Bach were free, his larder would always be full, and his cookery might be worth tasting.

This is a simple matter, and one in which artists can act for themselves without asking help (which I am afraid they would ask in vain) from lawyers and legislators. Let every artist make a vow, and here among artists I include all such as write or speak on scientific or learned subjects, never to prosecute or lend himself to a prosecution under the law of copyright. Let any artist who appeals to that law be cut by his friends, asked to resign from his clubs, and cold-shouldered by any society in which right-thinking artists have influence. It would not be many years before the law was a dead letter, and the strangle-hold of artistic individualism in this one respect a thing of the past.

This, however, will not be enough unless the freedom so won is used. Let all such artists as understand one another, therefore, plagiarize each other's work like men. Let each borrow his friends' best ideas, and try to improve on them. If A thinks himself a better poet than B, let him stop hinting it in the pages of an essay; let him re-write B's poems and publish his own improved version. If X is dissatisfied with Y's this-year Academy picture, let him paint one caricaturing it; not a sketch in Punch, but a full-sized picture for next year's Academy. I will not rely upon the hanging committee's sense of humour to the extent of guaranteeing that they would exhibit it; but if they did, we should get brighter Academy exhibitions. Or if he cannot improve on his friends' ideas, at least let him borrow them; it will do him good to try fitting them into works of his own, and it will be an advertisement for the creditor. An absurd suggestion? Well, I am only proposing that modern artists should treat each other as Greek dramatists or Renaissance painters or Elizabethan poets did. If any one thinks that the law of copyright has fostered better art than those barbarous times could produce, I will not try to convert them."


It's hard to imagine how this could be applied to today in a practical sense, how the public's perception of "artistic theft" could be changed, but Collingwood and Lethem are far from alone in their view that things need to change. A respected US judge, Richard A. Posner, recently published The Little Book of Plagiarism, which examines how we look at the hot-potato that is copyright ownership. From the LA Times review:

"Ever the controversialist, Posner is willing to entertain the idea that plagiarism is hardly the high crime that moralists in the media and the academy advertise it as…
...he complains about "the absurd idea that 'copying' is inherently bad" and the "growing belief that literary, artistic, and other intellectual goods are not really 'creative' unless they are 'original.' "

Or as Posner puts it in his book:

"The vagueness of the concept of plagiarism should be acknowledged and thus a gray area recognized in which creative imitation produces value that should undercut a judgment of plagiarism - indeed an imitator may produce greater value than an originator, once 'originality' is understood, as it should be if we are to understand plagiarism in properly relativistic terms, just to mean difference, not necessarily creativity. In modern commercial society, which places the stamp of personality on goods both physical and intellectual for economic reasons unrelated to high culture, a verdict of plagiarism is pronounced without regard to the quality of the plagiarized original or, for that matter, of the plagiarizing copy."

It seems that money, quite typically, is the reason for this modern change in thought; The original authors are not always the ones most upset at finding their work "plagiarised", indeed it is the publishers who will most likely sue if they feel someone has stolen parts of their intellectual property, and indeed the law encourages them to do so. For if a copyright owner is not seen to attempt to protect their intellectual property at all times, this can be held against them in court the next time they cry thief.

Posner seems to be saying that it is the law, not just public opinion, that needs to change. Accusations of plagiarism should be judged individually, taking into account the actual damage done to the original author and current copyright holder, and whether or not the alleged theft actually has any artistic merits in its own right. In short, plagiarism isn't always bad and if we don't change our perceptions soon, our high-culture will continue to suffer in ways we aren't even seeing.

The next Shakespeare may have already been persecuted and branded a thief.

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