Ownership and Originality have long been murky concepts in the world of art. Where ownership of property is clear, defined, and visible, ownership of shapes, concepts, musical tunes, and the like are harder to establish. Can you really own and patent “rectangles with rounded corners“? Patents are defined as “…a set of exclusive rights granted by a sovereign state to an inventor or their assignee for a limited period of time, in exchange for the public disclosure of the invention.” A copyright is very similar, affording protection for artistic and literary work instead of inventions. But at their core, they rely on the same premise of offering protection to someone who created something new, never before seen or done. Protection from what? The idea is that you now “own” your arrangement of music, collection of words, or drawing, and nobody else should be able to use it in any way without compensating you for that.
This calls into question originality itself. How can an idea truly not have any previous influence? Every idea, on some level, is the result of a percolation of life experiences and knowledge. Whether or not you explicitly remember hearing a certain melody when writing a new song, that knowledge is in your head, working through your subconscious. And, I believe, that’s ok! The point was made several times that art, and human progress as a whole, is a collective endeavor. We stand on the shoulders of those before us. It’s how artistic and creative movements come to be. And that’s not a revolutionary point. Influence is good, blatant reproduction is wrong and shouldn’t be allowed. It’s the gray area where, maybe you took part of the melody and reappropriated it, as Vanilla Ice famously did for “Ice Ice Baby”, that gets tricky. While he slightly changed the music, there is no mistaking where it came from. While I can understand the reasoning of those who argue against that, I believe it is still ok.
I am a proponent of the “Everything is a Remix” ideology discussed by Kirby Ferguson. Art builds off of itself, and trying to lock everything down through copyright ignores the fact that A) The copywritten work almost assuredly is taking elements from something else, and B) that art is supposed to be a collective endeavor, furthering an ideal. Art doesn’t exist in isolation; quite the opposite in fact. It can only work with everyone buying into the system, living and working in a collaborative environment. There’s a reason the ITP floor isn’t filled with long rows of cubicles. But as easy as it is to discuss the world in those terms, at the end of the day people want to get paid for their work. You should be compensated when someone sells prints of your drawing, or uses your song in a commercial. It’s your exact work, and it is critical to the success of whatever the other party is trying to accomplish. But someone using elements of you work in their own, out of context and rearranged in a totally different way, should be encouraged. I thought the quote by Thomas Jefferson did a fantastic job elaborating on this point (as well as demonstrate this battle is not a new one). Jefferson said “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”
You lose nothing when someone samples from your work. The prideful artist likes to deny people this opportunity, feeling that their work was the result of a stroke of genius, removed from the artistic quagmire that it no doubt emerged from. But no one produces in a vacuum, and to think so is naive and selfish. There should be some sense of pride and honor in the fact that someone thought your work was so good that they want to incorporate it into something they are putting their own name on. Quentin Tarantino is notorious for consuming a huge amount of work in a given genre, and using elements and styles from those movies in his own work. As noted, Bob Dylan was a famous sampler. Andy Warhol took preexisting photos, products, and objects, and turned them into some of worlds most iconic art. Those men, and all the men and women who have sampled throughout time, followed a path described by Jefferson, to the betterment of their art. Something they heard or saw sparked them, and they ran with an idea. The original idea exists in its entirety, a wholly separate entity from their work. But there is a common connection, a thread of influence.
If I had to sum up my thoughts on the matter, it would be that an influence or borrowed element doesn’t negate originality. The notion that “nothing is original anymore” is easy, and lazy. It’s always easier to be cynical about the state of things, looking at the broad surface of movie sequels and reproduced graphics. So maybe you have to dive a little deeper to find the inspiring, fresh content you’re supposedly looking for. I would contend that those people complaining about the staleness aren’t actually looking. They just want to complain to complain, and are fine with the status quo. Because the people who truly look to make art, and change the environment around them, could never be bored or sick of things. They are constantly looking, searching, copying, remixing, borrowing and inventing. And that is why good art will continue to be produced, to work in phases and evolve out of itself, layer on layer, from artist to artist.