The hoopla over " `Love and Theft' " and "Confessions of a Yakuza" is a symptom of a growing misunderstanding about culture's ownership and evolution, a misunderstanding that has accelerated as humanity's oral tradition migrates to the Internet. Ideas aren't meant to be carved in stone and left inviolate; they're meant to stimulate the next idea and the next.
Because information is now copied and transferred more quickly than ever, a panicky reaction has set in among corporations and some artists who fear a time when they won't be able to make a profit selling their information (in the form of music, images, movies, computer software). As the Internet puts a huge shared cultural heritage within reach, they want to collect fees or block access. Amazingly enough, some musicians want to prevent people from casually listening to their music, much less building new tunes on it.
Companies with large copyright holdings are also hoping to whittle away the safe harbor in copyright law called fair use, which allows limited and ambiguously defined amounts of imitation for education, criticism, parody and other purposes. The companies also want to prevent copyrighted works from entering the public domain, where they can be freely copied and distributed. The Supreme Court recently ruled, in Eldred v. Ashcroft, that individual copyrights could extend for 70 years after the life of the creator, or in the case of a corporation, for 95 years. As a result, Mickey Mouse will be kept out of the public domain — that shared cultural heritage — until 2024.
The absolutely original artist is an extremely rare and possibly imaginary creature, living in some isolated habitat where no previous works or traditions have left any impression. Like virtually every artist, Mr. Dylan carries on a continuing conversation with the past. He's reacting to all that culture and history offer, not pretending they don't exist. Admiration and iconoclasm, argument and extension, emulation and mockery — that's how individual artists and the arts themselves evolve. It's a process that is neatly summed up in Mr. Dylan's album title " `Love and Theft,' " which itself is a quotation from a book on minstrelsy by Eric Lott.
Hip-hop, ever in the vanguard, ran into problems in the mid-1980's when the technique of sampling — copying and adapting a riff, a beat and sometimes a hook or a whole chorus to build a new track — was challenged by copyright holders demanding payment even for snippets. Although sampling was just a technological extension of the age-old process of learning through imitation, producers who use samples now pay up instead of trying to set precedents for fair use.
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Love and Theft
From "Plagiarism in Dylan, or a Cultural Collage?" by John Pareles: