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Revealing Shakespeare's Inner Pirate

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.

Bob Dylan

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.”

George Harrison

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?

The Romans

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.


Images by: practicalowl, Ioan Sameli

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

Reader Comments (7)

I think you're dead wrong.

First and foremost, to say that art flourished more two hundred years ago than it does today means you've never been to a museum.

Second, copyright does not prevent others from using something, it just requires that they ask permission.

Third, Woody Guthrie was a great artist but I'm not going to listen to him for a second on economics.

Think about it: since the US Constitution wrote copyright and patent protection into law, innovation has gone way up, not down.

Oh, and your example about the Romans, well, i just don't know what to say. The Romans WERE pirates -- and proud of it.


I always find it funny that when at a loss to propose a solution, the tendency is to attempt to obfuscate the issue. Let's clear some of the muddle up:

1. The Shakespeare examples could use a bit more detail. Copyright extends to expressions of ideas, not the ideas themselves. The Mark Anthony and Cleopatra story in particular - being based on historical fact - can hardly be put forth as an example of copyright infringement. We shouldn't ignore the market perspective either - it is one thing to choose an inspiration that genuinely inspires the artist and another entirely to grab an already proven product as a way to make some cash off it (as is the case with most movie adaptations of books, for instance). In Shakespeare's day the market conditions were a wee bit different, yes?

2. The incorporation of other people's thoughts into one's own works, by quotation or reference, is an long accepted practice and, yes, protected from copyright challenges - the term is "fair use". It's intentionally vague to allow for fine shades of distinction, but the general idea is that while you can draw from external sources, you cannot pass somebody else's work off as your own. Look up this piece on the Shephard Fairey case for the four points considered under US law.

3. There is nothing in copyright that prevents you from using other people's material. Heck, the pure songwriters out there are counting that somebody will - that's how they get paid. Notice the key point? The folks who make a living writing songs make it when they receive royalties for other people using their work. The royalties they are being paid are something that the artist doing the recording isn't entitled to anyway, exactly because they didn't write the song. Have a bone with paying royalties if you're the one financing recordings? Don't use other people's songs. If you chose to do something, it's your responsibility to sort everything out.

3a. Woody Guthrie's - or any other author's - personal stance is unimportant in the debate. There is no obligation under copyright for anyone to enforce their rights. Wanna give your songs away? You're free to do so. However, you cannot force others to share your altruism. If someone is onto something good and they can license it at a profit, it's their right - without them, the song wouldn't exist.

4. You know, I've been writing songs for over twelve years and despite being acquainted both with copyright law and the Harrison case (plus countless others) I fail to live in horror of facing a copyright infringement claim. I know I am not stealing so I don't expect to be caught stealing. It may happen, true, there are only twelve notes in our scale after all, but I'll worry about it if and when it happens. I'd hazard a guess that all those professional songwriters out there feel more like me.

5. Saying we're disadvantaged compared to our ancestors is just as silly as claiming we'd have no creativity without copyright. Surprisingly enough, we've probably got more creative works in the public eye over the last hundred years or so than we did over all preceding ages. The copyright industries have a pretty good record of introducing a large quantity of varied material to the marketplace. I'd also say that combined with mass media they've enabled more people to make a living being creative than any other legal and economic environment we'd seen before. That's disadvantaged, that is.

I agree that we need copyright reform, but attempts to show that everyone's really a pirate aren't helping. Yes, we should make it easier for the audience to legally acquire the works they want (perhaps through phasing out the practice of limited territorial availability in favour of global licensing). Yes, we could make it easier to clear the use of somebody else's work as a basis for our own. No, we should not allow a free-for-all, not if we want people to continue to investing in creativity and are unwilling to see the return of the literally starving artist.

You ask if the purpose of copyright is to promote innovation. Yes it is and the mechanism is very specific: it is to ensure that investing in creative endeavours is economically viable. I believe that the people who create and the people who invest money in financing and promoting their creativity deserve to be paid when they come up with something we like and want. Don't you?

There are numerous examples of people creating mixes and mashes and putting them up on Youtube for their families, friends and the public - only to be taken down very quickly.

There are many more tools these days for helping people be creative and a lot more people have a lot more time on their hands to do so . Therefore it is no surprise that there is more creativity.

The problem is that with today's copyright laws this creativity is being threatened constantly.

We do not know how many people are not creating because of this atmosphere of terror and fear created by the RIAA and MPAA and their bought politicians.

This is a fight between content creators and corporate hoarders of creativity and the public, over who will be allowed to be creative. Will people be allowed to use their culture in order to be creative? Will every one have to hire a team of lawyers before publishing a mixtape?

We have the technological tools to live in an extremely free and creative society. The only thing standing in the way are the content legacy industries and their poor, blinded followers.

June 3 | Unregistered Commenteryogi

In the words of Albert Einstein:

"Originality is simply concealing your source!"

Or maybe he borrowed that quote from someone else.

Cheers - Andy

Thanks for all the comments guys.

I'm not really sure how to respond to your comment. The two questions I was trying to ask through this article are the following: If the current trend of increasingly strict copyright law continues, is it going to have an impact on the creation of future culture?

And, if current copyright law had been in place or enforced in the historical examples above, would those great pieces of art ever have been made?

Thanks for providing some constructive criticism, the examples could have been more effective if they had been more in depth.

It seems we both believe many of the same points, but we differ on our conclusions. Art is not made in a vacuum.

June 3 | Unregistered CommenterMike Venti

Even though his resume includes copyright counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives in the early 1990s and a policy planning advisor to the Register of Copyrights, William Patry, has been judged by many to be certifiably incompetent. Many within the Copyright Office deem his opinions irrelevant and damaging to the progress of our culture. So, basing anything on anything this man has to say makes your side of the argument moot from the get go as far as I'm concerned.

But, let's drop to the bottom line ... Copyright only protect the EXPRESSION of an idea... not the idea itself... Copyright is specifically designed to encourage the use of IDEAS to create new expressions of those ideas ... For example, how many songs are about love? The way someone expresses their feelings about love is protected (you can lift chunks of someone else's expression and call it your own) but you can create your own expression of the subject matter without impunity ... and, in fact, with full protection under the law.

June 3 | Unregistered CommenterTonsoTunez

I totally agree that art happens in an artistic and cultural context. Well? In our society, nothing happens in a vacuum.

However, we also have rules about how these interaction are to take place - that's what society is for. We've every reason to debate the fine points of these rules, but before advocating any radical change, we'd best be damn sure we know what we're doing.

My main issue with this post and similar ones from other authors is that its main aim seems to be blurring distinctions - hey, Shakespeare lifted ideas from whomever, ergo it's okay to take the latest bestseller and make a movie out of it without compensating (or even asking) the author. Or even to download that same movie from TPB.

(I know you did not make this point, but it's a conclusion that can be logically drawn from the tenor of your post.)

Besides, I believe the restrictions copyright places on the creator's options for lifting stuff from others are generally beneficial to the evolution of art. They discourage copy-paste or LEGO style creation and force the author to really get creative about how they steal.

Surely, more creativity in art is a good thing?

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