Intelligent Theft

Nothing is orig­i­nal. Steal from any­where that res­onates with inspi­ra­tion or fuels your imag­i­na­tion. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paint­ings, pho­tographs, poems, dreams, ran­dom con­ver­sa­tions, archi­tec­ture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bod­ies of water, light and shad­ows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authen­tic. Authenticity is invalu­able; orig­i­nal­ity is nonex­is­tent. And don’t bother con­ceal­ing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remem­ber what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.”

- Jim Jarmusch

Ideas of pla­garism and shar­ing are not what they once were. The modern economics of digital goods, where one can­not escape the fact that repro­duc­tion and redis­tri­b­u­tion of one’s work is ridicu­lously easy, make attempt­ing to com­modi­tise and mon­e­tise any form of dig­i­tal art an uphill strug­gle. It’s not a mat­ter of favour­ing less pro­pri­etary ideas of dig­i­tal own­er­ship, we no longer have a choice.

This new eco­nom­ics is not unusual though, any pecu­liar­ity is with the old way. Copyright, a 20th Century con­cept, was designed to pro­tect the abil­ity for an artist to profit from their work, which obvi­ously (if one only ever thinks in terms of the mar­ket) is the sole rea­son any artist gets up in the morn­ing. This idea of stamp­ing own­er­ship on an idea for legal pur­poses has always stood counter to the very nature of our post-(post-post-)modernist era, where it is so dif­fi­cult to find any idea that is truly orig­i­nal, stand­ing, as we do, upon the shoul­ders of so many giants.

It is impos­si­ble to be entirely devoid of influ­ence, it is in our nature to imi­tate. This is how chil­dren learn to speak, form a sense of moral respon­si­bil­ity, and develop their inter­pre­ta­tions of soci­etal norms; by copy­ing their elders. Litigating against imi­ta­tion shares the futil­ity of attempts to out­law sex.

Copyright laws have never stopped copy­ing, they’ve just dis­torted our cul­ture to favour that which can be legally repro­duced. For exam­ple, while Oasis did not infringe the copy­right of the The Beatles, they copied just about every­thing that was legally copy­able about them, with healthy prof­its. Yet if they had sam­pled even a brief sec­tion of any one of their songs, they would have needed to clear it and pay large roy­al­ties. I would argue with any­one who claimed the insipid dirge of Oasis was more rel­e­vant to nineties music than the inven­tive­ness of hip-hop (a genre built on sam­pling), yet we have a sys­tem that levies finan­cial penal­ties against the lat­ter rather than the former.

John Lennon is on record as say­ing the major­ity of Beatles songs started out with them try­ing to “do” another artist, mim­ic­k­ing their style. They would then develop these ideas and take them far beyond their root. Picasso too, apocryphally, said, “Good artists bor­row. Great artists steal”. The mes­sage is: it’s not pla­gia­rism as long as you make it your own. Stealing is wrong, yes, by any moral frame­work, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t recog­nise the value of intel­li­gent theft.

Warning:this entire post is a convoluted joke.


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