Cite me, bro?

They say that we are an amalgamation of the five people nearest and dearest to us.  My personality, word choice, tone, sense of humor, world view, and general attitude isn’t actually mine.  It’s a mashup.  A borrowing and repurposing of others.  It seems obvious to say that I have not plagiarized anything.  Have I?

That’s what came to mind while reading Jonathan Lethem’s article.

It’s such a fuzzy line – the artist must be compensated for their work if they expect to have the security and freedom to create more work.  Without some form of protection, there’s nothing stopping their work from being plundered and resold.  But at the same time Lethem’s words on influence – his notion that art is inspired through our vast network of experiences (rather than out of thin air) – seem to suggest that as soon as a work is once removed, the original artist owns no claim.  How, then, are they compensated?  Is it enough to say that the work honors them?  I understand the idea that without influence, without borrowing, creativity would be utterly stifled, but it’s a enormously complicated issue.  We’re talking about people who have to eat.  Buy supplies.  Pay rent.  Must artists struggle to get by?  Is that inherent in being an artist?  I’d argue that artists provide significant economic value – in the sense that they breed inspiration in others.  But because that value is almost impossible to quantify in the way that, say, a toaster’s value can be quantified, it languishes, and thus the artist suffers.  So while I wholeheartedly agree that mashups, remixes, and repurposing of others ideas into something new and unique is instrumental for our creative collective to move forward, the issue of who owns what is equally important to carefully consider.  I’m not suggesting that the way we handle copyright today is right, in fact I think it’s horribly broken.  Similar to patent law.  But I think it’s too simple to ignore ownership altogether.

I do not pretend to have any answers, I only recognize the stickiness inherent to this conversation.

This stickiness is portrayed particularly well in Joy Garnett and Susan Meiselas article on the Molotov Man.  The fact that the article doesn’t come to any nice, tidy conclusions about the state of ownership of their work lends to the ambiguity of the idea of ownership.

What of science and technology?  What of open source?  What of scientific research and citations?  Because research is often conducted without direct economic impacts and rewards, it largely escapes the troubles of ownership.  However Academics tend to be massively secretive when working on a new, potentially powerful, study.  They worry about credit, even though they don’t necessarily worry about compensation.  But in the process, they cite 20, 30, 40 other works by other researchers.  Their work is informed by others, not created in a vacuum.  How, then, can they claim full ownership of their findings when they hinge on the work of so many who came before them?

Kirby Ferguson put’s it perfectly in his TEDTalk.  Everything is a remix.  Science, technology, art – all remixed all the time.  It’s interesting to think about embracing this idea, rather than turning away from it.  Embrace our collective creativity and hold no shame for remixing.  But an economy built on capitalism will forever be in contradiction to this idea.  Which is why in order to survive, to pay rent, we need to consider the idea of ownership, unless we can figure out a way to live outside of capitalism altogether.

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