As the modern battle over copyright gains steam, many questionable labels are being perpetuated by both sides of the debate. One such of these falsities is the labeling of alleged copyright infringers as pirates.
I’m not sure about you, but I’ve never stepped foot on a schooner, much less sailed on a sloop or brigantine. And, as far as I know, I’ve never had a pet parrot, peg leg, or an unquenchable desire for buried treasure that alleged pirates seem to have.
Another falsity is the widely misplaced notion that copying others works is only an act of the talentless, or worse, an act from those without morals. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact it seems that the very best artists in human history have copied other’s work. Quite simply this is how great art is made.
Art is not created in a vacuum.
Nobody can honestly say they created an entirely original piece of artwork or music. It’s absurd. You are influenced from all the other songs you have ever heard, or all the other artists you have studied.
Don’t believe me?
Why don’t we move on to some of the more famous among us to illustrate my point.
(Disclaimer: Being the supposed pirate I am, some of the idea’s below come from William Patry’s book “Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars”)
No! Not the Bard you say. Alas, he can’t be a pirate.
It’s actually quite well known that Shakespeare often borrowed the plot and characters of previous works and later added minor characters and embellishments. However, his genius lay not only in his mastery of dialogue but also his ability to take what others had done and vastly improve it.
For example the idea for Romeo and Juliet is usually sourced to Arthur Brooke’s narrative poem The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, published in 1562 (2 years before Shakespeare was even born). But the twisting path of the copyright’s trail doesn’t start there. Arthur Brooke apparently translated his poem from an Italian novella written by Matteo Bandello sometime earlier.
Oh, and this isn’t Shakespeare’s only apparent faux pas. Other of his “pirated” works include: Antony and Cleopatra (based on Plutarch’s Life of Marcus Antonius), and Othello (based on Giraldi’s Un Capitano Moro).
Imagine for a moment if today’s copyright laws had existed in Shakespeare’s time. It very well could have resulted in a world without Shakespeare.
I Have A Dream Speech - Martin Luther King
Yup that’s right. Dr. King didn’t make this stuff up himself, in fact he didn’t even dream it. The speech itself is a blend of a few different sources, most notably from Archibald Carey’s 1952 speech at the Republican National Convention—which in turn was copied from “America” composed by Samuel F. Smith in 1831.
“Immature poets imitate; mature artists steal.” - T.S. Eliot
Ironically, Dr. Kings speech, which is an amalgamation of other sources, apparently is not in the public domain and in fact is protected by copyright. What an incredibly loss it would be for humanity if a speech as moving as this (considered one of the greatest speeches in human history) was actually kept from the public and it’s copyright enforced.
Ever heard one of Bob Dylan’s first songs, Song To Woody? It’s an ode to Dylan’s mentor Woody Guthrie. The chord progression and melody are also directly lifted from Woody’s song 1913 Massacre. But does that make it any less of a song? I think not. Dylan even played it for Guthrie while he was in the hospital.
Or what about Dylan’s 2006 comeback album Modern Times. The tune Rollin’ and Tumblin’ is an old blues standard (although sometimes credited to Muddy Waters) with some tweaked lyrics. The point is with the ever increasing length of copyright in these modern times (you see what I did there?), artists don’t have access to this artistic tradition of taking familiar works and rearranging them into something new (not without the help of lawyers and the payout of royalties).
Woody Guthrie’s stance on copyright, however, says it all:
“This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright # 154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.”
Arguably one of the best songs Harrison wrote post-Beatles was the tune My Sweet Lord. It went on to become a huge hit worldwide. Later that year (1971) Harrison was sued because apparently the song sounded too similar to The Chiffons tune He’s So Fine. Interestingly enough Harrison stated that he was inspired by a completely different song–Oh Happy Day by the Edwin Hawkins Singers.
Unfortunately, Harrison lost the case and was forced to give up all the royalties made from that song, as well as a portion of the earnings from All Things Must Pass (the album it appeared on).
It seems to me that stories like these would only go ahead and promote that artists be cautious and timid in their craft, lest this horror happen to them.
I thought copyright was all about spurring innovation?
Okay, okay. The Romans aren’t exactly a single artist. But imagine if the Romans had to somehow pay royalties to the ancient Greeks from whom they borrowed (stole) their ideas. Ideas including, but not limited to: written language, architecture, philosophy, literature, art, design, and even the very god’s they worshipped.
The lack of copyright laws did not stifle innovation and creativity, it encouraged it.
Being that the very purpose of copyright itself is to encourage innovation, it’s not hard to see how our draconian laws today are currently inhibiting art, not encouraging it. Modern artists are at a severe disadvantage compared to their historical counterparts, because they can not freely, nor easily adapt and build upon what others have done.
I’m not claiming to be an expert on the copyright debate. I’m not even saying that abolishing copyright is the answer. But, what I do know is that a serious worldwide debate on copyright reform needs to happen–right now–otherwise we’ll continue to watch our human culture suffer as we whine about the golden era’s of music, literature, art, whatever.
If Shakespeare was a pirate, then maybe pirates aren’t so bad after all.
Mike Venti is a musician and creator of the Wayward Musician blog, which provides ideas and advice for atypical artists. This post was originally published on Wayward Musician on April 9, 2010. You can connect with Mike on Twitter and Facebook.