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Paulina Borsook: "Is It Art or Is It Appropriation? Or; Thank _You_, Walter Benjamin!"

Art is -not- information: what makes art fundamentally different is that it can last and last, where most information grows stale with time; art is precisely that which we -don't- want to be morphable. The largest darkzone surrounding the intellectual properties of art versus information stems from the culture clash between the traditional holders of intellectual property (print and music publishers, for example), who understand about the everlasting qualities art can have, but fear and don't -really- understand technology; and the computer industry, which also profits from intellectual property, and -does- understand the technology, but does -not- understand that what might work for extracting revenue from revisions to software (charging for customer support, for example) is nonsensical for a novelist or composer. Charging for upgrades to a photographer's neatokeano image of a an Alaskan griz whomping a salmon on the head makes no sense.

The Europeans have a greater sense of these issues, and they have developed an entire legal philosophy called "moral rights" which gives artists kinds of control over their intellectual property in perpetuity.

That won't fly in this country, but I -do- find it interesting that science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling, who also writes non-fiction about cyberculture, has made a big deal about making his journalism available for free on the Net, simulataneous with its print publication --- but has done no such thing with his novels. Without being conscious of it, he was honoring the distinction between art and information.

And in an earlier era, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder stipulated that his wise and funny "Smokey the Bear Sutra" could be copied free forever (perfect for framing on a dormroom wall !) --- but his Real Work remains, as it always has, under the copyright protection of his publisher.

There's something about the proprietary relationship between artists and their work that's intrinsic to the process. After all, it is the sweet blood from -your- own veins that's been spilled: you want to have some say on what happens to those clotting factors. It was donated for a cause, not to be spilled on the floor.

Myself, when it appeared that I'd been plagiarised, I felt that a psychic energy vampire had feeding on unconscious, a sensation none would enjoy. Perhaps I might feel different if I were Stephen King, wildly successful with prolixity to spare. but I dont think so.

And if a lame foreign-language knockoff of my semispoof-semiserious treatment for a hipcyberkids TV show, "beverly_hills.com", went into production (that is, just different enough as to be damage-proof, but close enough so it was like seeing bad versions of the well-loved characters I created), I'd feel furious.

Words may be different from film and music, in that with writing, expression and idea are the same, in fact are everything. But I suspect my visual artist friends wouldn't be pleased either with being knocked off.

Plagiarism lawyers say all art lies all in the telling, for there are maybe only 25 narratives. Post-renaissance, literature has consisted in large part of amazing retellings of in contemporary settings of classical works, folktales, myths, and other narratives that have been around since forever. Margaret Drabble retells "Jane Eyre" and "Mill on the Floss"; Isabel Colegate the Oedipus trilogy; Jane Smiley "King Lear"; and that's cool by me and by most folks, I'd imagine. And I know it helps that these appropriated authors are long dead...

Which leads to the value of copyright. Broadly, the profit to be had from copyright is the ostensible reason, way to profit artists seek, though most of us create because we must. I make no hosanna to gods of capitalism, but money does represent value in society and is code for a stored unit of work. If we mostly do away with enforceable copyright in most forms, does this mean we cynically throw the whole possibility of profiting from art? That we don't value art, really, any more? Perhaps the lesson of Pop Art of 60s and the market/hype-driven artworld of 80s, that it's become all marketing, anyway...

Yet it's hard. In the digital cyber postmodernist global age, even if you wish to honor copyright solely to protect artists and the value of their works, there are endless on-beyond-zebra rights difficulties. Which make make multimedia projects difficult; and often ease and availability of rights are what weirdly decides the fates of what goes into anthologies.

As for the special case of the Internet, there are additional complicating issues: there's the phenomenon of reproduction (sans compensation, and just as bad if not worse, sans acknowledgement of authorship) -- and there's plagiarism. How can you tell when one shades into the other?

We do not live in a perfect world of Ted Nelson's Xanadu, of online agents and objects, where ready pay-per-view (like a quarter a download) exists. What's more, in Silicon Valley's visions of the future there's a general contempt for intellectual property, unless it's code for a program. Only part of this disregard has to do with the "Oh, anyone can do it" attitude so wonderfully mocked in "Get Shorty", but that's the subject for another discussion...

As for my own plagiarism case, when I gave my novella "Love Over The Wires" and the suspiciously similar "Virtual Love" to an English professor friend to examine he remarked "she couldn't have written hers without yours in front of her." But to him, as critic rather than creator, this was more a matter of homage/appropriation than plagiarism. Where does one become another?

Yet my own work, "Love Over the Wires" is post-modern enough: there are references to William Blake and the Firesign Theater. I made an intricate multilevel, involved pedant-joke involving the Metaphysical poet Robert Lovelace and Richardson's "Clarissa". The piece by design is a bathetic fin-de-siecle obeisance to Joyce's "The Dead"; I include an entire poem by W.S. Merwin, whose agent I did ask for permission to reprint "The Blind Seer of Ambon". And I didn't feel diminished nor that I looked stupid, by giving someone else overt credit.

In spite of all these potentially anxiety-producing influences, I don't think any of these author whose works I echoed, living or dead, would have felt ripped off by what I wrote.

Maybe the difference between homage, appropriation --- and ripping someone off --- is like the standard that used to be applied to porn (cant define it, know it when I see it).

So I remain haunted by a lesson that was drummed into me when I took an editing class at the film school at Columbia: that what you leave out is as important as what you leave in, in telling a story; that filmmakers routinely shoot 10 feet for every one they use; as I've always suspected, edited work and juried shows are simply better. And in spite of the DIY/borrowing from zine culture of the Web, most folks -do- want to be published in edited venues, whether online or IRL, for we unconsciously deeply value the function of making editorial judgments --- no matter how much high-tech futurists just -love- to imagine that these operations can be automated away by software agents. It's precisely the fear of the subjective, those irrational faculties that make us human, that drive technologists to dream these aesthetic choices away; yet it is exactly making these suprarational unconsious choices, and drawing on all we've seen and all we've read and all we've heard, that makes art --- and any of its lawful or sacrilegious appropriations --- continue to be possible.

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