Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Copy Cat

The idea of copying/stealing that I mentioned in the Shakespeare TaDum post, keeps pushing it's way into my experience which is a good thing if I'm going to address that bullet in my "to do" list. My friend Annie pointed out that I was doing a kind of copying when I quoted her poker report into my blog, followed by copying my friend Lynn's baseball report. Now as an English teacher, I know this was more like reporting from other sources with clear citations. But as an English teacher, I'm also acutely aware of how blurry the line can get between plagiarism and appropriate/adequate citation.

The issue also cropped up when I was making my way through the Amazon.com blog (I was totally captured by that blog and kept returning to it for most of a day--see Blog Heaven post). One particular post referenced two articles in Harpers (Feb. 07) on originality and plagiarism.

The first article is a paired response in which two artists debate artistic ownership. One of the two is a photojournalist who shot pictures of Sandinista rebels and the other is a painter who used one of these photos as the basis for a painting. (You can see the painting here. Scroll down.) The photo journalist objects to the painting because it places the subject outside of its original historical context.

I checked out the painting and it's original source (at the links provided above), and the painter has clearly cited her source in a label that accompanies the work. To my way of thinking, this is sufficient. She lets viewers know where her idea originated, and if they choose to follow it's trajectory, historical or otherwise, they can with this citation. That is exactly what I've always hoped to teach students as a critical notion regarding documentation.

The second article by Jonathan Lethem is a defense of the "artist's right (and duty) to borrow, steal, allude, echo, repeat, rework, and rob." The blogger goes on to report Lethem's closing:

Don't pirate my editions; do plunder my visions. The name of the game is Give All. You, reader, are welcome to my stories. They were never mine in the first place, but I give them to you. If you have the inclination to pick them up, take them with my blessing.

Now this argument slips into the realm of Shakespeare's version of "copying." I don't know if Shakespeare cited his sources, but I rather doubt it. I think instead that it was clearly apparent that he was often adapting popular stories of the day. While in Ashland, I listened to an actor explain the trajectory of the core idea in Tom Stoppard's play On the Razzle. The story originated (maybe) way back in the mid-19th century and traveled through time to evolve into the musical stage production and then movie of Hello Dolly. Stoppard actually returned to the earlier story placing it in the 1840s, but the director of the Ashland production chose to place the play in the first decade of the 20th century.

What all of this says to me is that creativity and art are in large part interpretation . . . a molding, carving, shaping of concepts to keep them fresh and living. Part of the fun can be looking at an idea's history, but each piece also needs to be able to stand alone on its own merit.

One more thing I learned when I was at Antioch University is that copying, stealing, reshaping and also citing are ways that artists converse with one another, the way they offer praise and gratitude as well as argue or enlarge upon ideas.

Nothing new here: Just ph thinking aloud.


Kathy said...

"Copying" anothers' work takes on an interesting aspect when teaching website development, as I and Melissa do. The scripting language that websites are made of is fairly limited and structured; there are only so many ways to create a table structure for example. So if you see a table structure, or some other functional element, in someone elses website, you can often view and copy the source code and use it on your own page. However, logos, photos, color schemes, etc. generally fall under the copyright rules. There is so much "free" content on the Internet it is often difficult to clearly define what needs citations and what does not. For class projects I give my students in the website course a fair amount of leeway under fair use rules but I always warn them that anything they plan to publish must not break copyright laws.

As a writer who reads so much, have you ever worried that you are inadvertantly incorporating ideas you've absorbed from others' books into your own writing?

It was great to see you yesterday!

Cindy said...

I like your thinking...:) In the book I'm reading right now, the writer "copies" everything that strikes her in an unusual way...as I have watched you do the same thing. You weren't born with words in your head. You had to hear them from someone else first, so I guess all that to say, people ONLY copy...make sense??

twilightme said...

Kathy, I really appreciate that you've added another dimension here to the issue of copying/borrowing/stealing others ideas. There is an interesting resonance with your comment and Cindy's. I suspect there are a finite number of ideas just as there are limits to the scripting language when formulating websites. A lot of what any writer is doing is offering his/her spin on an existing concept. There is no doubt when I wrote my book that I was incorporating ideas from my newly found exposure to feminist writers. In effect, I was trying to make sense of these new ideas by incorporating them into a record of my experience. As I mentioned in the post, it was my way of conversing with these other writers. It was very deliberate and nothing was inadvertent. I think, perhaps, it is the novice or basic writer like those we meet in our classes who are more likely to do this mindlessly. I always felt it was my job to encourage students to think about where their notions were coming from and give credit when possible. This is a very interesting topic and actually came up today when I was talking with the editor at the Union Democrat who admitted she has no qualms about stealing ideas from other publications. Hmmm . . . it's the word stealing that has the strong effect. I'm going to think about a better word to use in this context. Thanks to both of you ladies for you comments.