Response to The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism by Jonathan Lethem

This is my response to The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism, by Jonathan Lethem for Communications Lab at ITP.

First of all, Lethem isn’t really a plagiarist because he cites the sources from which he lift phrases.  In any case, I get many of his points, and it was a great literary ‘reveal’ at the end of a well-written piece.  I agree that The whole idea of copyright needs to be reassessed as society and technology changes.  In fact, technological change often makes legal structures of intellectual property ownership quickly obsolete.  As Lethem says:

In the contemporary world, though, the act of “copying” is in no meaningful sense equivalent to an infringement—we make a copy every time we accept an emailed text, or send or forward one—and is impossible anymore to regulate or even describe.

Lethem also refers to modern American copyright law’s “limitless bloating.”  It is indeed a blunt instrument, that while seemingly universal in its scope, seems to best maintain and benefit the position of copyright holders at the top of the socio-economic-political hierarchy.  What does Britney Spears really have to lose if I release an unauthorized cover of her songs?  I am but a peon compared to the ASCAAP and the major label’s legal departments.  But on the other hand, for a struggling independent artist, it would really suck if some major entertainment-industrial-complex corporation ripped off my work.  Sure I could sue, that’s the American way after all, but it would probably be too expensive and too much trouble.  There is also the hypocrisy of what Lethem calls “imperial plagiarism, the free use of Third World or ‘primitive’ art works and styles by more privileged (and better-paid) artists.”  This kind of plagiarism represents a one-way appropriation, and not a multilateral cultural exchange of ideas.  Neo-colonialism posing as creative production?

The problem is with what do we replace our current copyright regime?  Creative Commons seems like a step in the right direction, in that it gives content creators choices on how to share, or to use Lethem’s language, “gift” their works of art to the world.  Derivative works are inevitable and essential for the continuation of art.  I think artists should be relevant to their place and time, which for us now means a society saturated with the signs of commercial advertising and pop culture, and enabled by facile digital replication.  Yet there is endless potential to mine that mundane world for remixing, mash-ups and the next big recombinant art form, which won’t let antiquated copyright law get in its way.  As Lethem says, “We’re surrounded by signs, our imperative is to ignore none of them.”