In a courtroom scene from The Simpsons that has since entered into the television canon, an argument over the ownership of the animated characters Itchy and Scratchy rapidly escalates into an existential debate on the very nature of cartoons. “Animation is built on plagiarism!” declares the show's hot-tempered cartoon-producer-within-a-cartoon, Roger Meyers Jr. “You take away our right to steal ideas, where are they going to come from?” If nostalgic cartoonists had never borrowed from Fritz the Cat, there would be no Ren & Stimpy Show; without the Rankin/Bass and Charlie Brown Christmas specials, there would be no South Park; and without The Flintstones—more or less The Honeymooners in cartoon loincloths—The Simpsons would cease to exist. If those don't strike you as essential losses, then consider the remarkable series of “plagiarisms” that links Ovid's “Pyramus and Thisbe” with Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, or Shakespeare's description of Cleopatra, copied nearly verbatim from Plutarch's life of Mark Antony and also later nicked by T. S. Eliot for The Waste Land. If these are examples of plagiarism, then we want more plagiarism.From Open Source:
Nearly every word of [Lethem's] essay about cultural borrowing and reworking was stolen — er, appropriated — from some other source and then cobbled together with a big dose of Lethem magic to form a cohesive whole. Even the “I”s aren’t Jonathan Lethem; they’re Jonathan Rosen writing in The Talmud and the Internet about John Donne, or William Gibson in a Wired article about William Burroughs, or David Foster Wallace on a grad school seminar, or Brian Wilson in a Beach Boys song.
But this is more than a stunt. It’s a passionate salvo in the copyright wars, a crowd of voices coralled together to say, basically: without borrowing, stealing, cribbing, remixing, mashing-up, collaging and compiling — without influences great and small, in other words — there is no “creating.” No hip hop, sure, but also no blues, no Disney, no Shakespeare. No Lolita or “I have a dream.” We’d be reduced to staring at campfires and barking at one another.
So how to think about the joys, perils, and contradictions of influence in our intellectual property age? Lethem wonders himself:
"The dream of a perfect systematic remuneration is nonsense. I pay rent with the price my words bring when published in glossy magazines and at the same moment offer them for almost nothing to impoverished literary quarterlies, or speak them for free into the air in a radio interview. So what are they worth? What would they be worth if some future Dylan worked them into a song? Should I care to make such a thing impossible?"Here is a podcast (mp3) of a discussion between novelist Jonathan Lethem, author Siva Vaidhyanathan, and musicians Mark Hosler (of Negativland) and Mike Doughty (of Soul Coughing) about the politics of plagiarism and originality.