Monday, January 26, 2015

Film Genres - Borrowing vs. Stealing



I very much enjoyed reading both articles, "Copywrong" and "Something Borrowed", and watching the documentary "Good Copy Bad Copy."  I agreed with both of the authors on the points they made and found everything they said extremely fascinating.  I came away from this assimilation of knowledge and cerebration, confused in many ways, but decided in one: People steal every day and that's okay.  BUT there is a very very very very fine line between good stealing and bad stealing.  Stealing that is progressive and gives the culture something new, and stealing that benefits nobody but yourself.  And it's our job, in this technology robust world, to figure out just where that line is.

I do think that many artists borrow as a fundamental part of the artistic/creative process and I believe they should have the freedom to do so.  Everything has been thought of under the sun so it's impossible to not steal or "borrow" things when you're an artist.  Like both articles essentially said, it is hard to define "steal" and "borrow" and there is a slim grey area between knowing when what you're taking is public property (words, colors, notes) and to what extent of combining those words, colors, notes, etc. does it become private property, or something that you cannot take?  Everyone is allowed to use the word "let" and the word "be", but is naming a song you wrote "Let it be" copyright infringement?   It is hard to give this question a yes or no answer, but I do believe that it would be nearly impossible to make art if there was no inspiration -- and when you're inspired, no matter what you say, you are stealing something; whether it's from one place or a million places, whether it's a concept or an entire composition.  That being said, it is not okay to publish an entire article or copy an entire book and name it as your own.

The authors in both articles talk about the differences between "derivative" borrowing and "transformative" borrowing -- derivative meaning you're taking something and using it to create the exact same thing, and transformative meaning you're using it to make something else.  In the article Something Borrowed, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that derivative borrowing is where we cross the line into theft, and transformative borrowing is merely using something as a source of inspiration.  Gladwell says: "Old words in the service of a new idea aren’t the problem. What inhibits creativity is new words in the service of an old idea."  Who ultimately determines which kind of borrowing -- derivative or transformative -- is right and which is wrong? Good question. The answer is: the law. We can talk about this until we are blue in the face, but at the end of the day it's the court that puts the thieves in prison for stealing and un-cuffs the "inspired artists."

Appropriation is not limited to art and writing.  People are constantly stealing ideas, inventions, and material things.  So much in life is stollen.  When you name your baby Sally, you are stealing that name from a person you met named Sally or a book you read involving a character with that name.  When you wear a fedora you are stealing Jason Mraz's signature look.  What's the difference between selling Crest toothpaste as your own and using it to brush every morning?  Stealing is part of our daily routine, part of our culture -- and more importantly, how artists (and how we) survive.

I am not saying that if somebody stole a piece of writing of mine and published it, I would be unmoved.  In fact, I would be furious.  What I am saying is you can't pronounce stealing as always wrong or always right; it literally depends on the specific situation.  Think prohibition.  Drinking was completely outlawed and everyone went INSANE.  They said: Drinking is "bad" for you.  But guess what?  Drinking is neither "good" for you or "bad" for you; it's all about moderation and looking at every situation on it's own podium.  Some things just DEPEND, and I think this is what these articles are saying.

I am constantly being influenced by other people's work.  I have never outright stolen someone else's anything, as in taken their work word by word and claimed it as mine.  I do, however, constantly look at other people's writing styles (Miranda July, Lena Dunham, Donna Tart, Charles Duhigg) and imitate them in my own voice.  I look at filmmakers I admire (Vincent Gallo, Woody Allen) and copy their sense of humor or shot styles, while telling my own story.  This is all transformative borrowing, but not even in the full use of the word, because I'm not actually taking anything.  There is such a wide range of the word appropriate and if being "influenced" is apart of that spectrum, then everybody steals every day.  Influence is everything; everything is an influence.  If we write a story about a bagel, are we stealing from the guy who invented bagels in Poland back in 1610?  

Authorship is constantly being redefined, especially now, during the boom of technology.  There is a whole art form called "sampling" where people take music from ten, twenty different copyrighted songs and fuse them into one mp3, and BAM it's now theirs.  What if that mashup becomes a hit?  Do none of the original songwriters get credit?  If you take a photograph of a painting, who owns it: you or the painter?  This is the age of the remix, the mashup, the reinvention, and it's almost impossible to define who the actual creators are.  Who gets credit?  I think we all do.