In virtually every medium of artistic expression, originality is a characteristic that is often expected of content creators. Artists that are more original than others are often perceived as better and smarter than their “derivative” peers. Especially in today’s age of the Internet, being 100% original is virtually impossible. Whether an artist takes influence from another piece of work consciously or not, the ethos of artists from the past will always be present in the work of current artists. Lethem’s article is very comprehensive and hard to follow at times, but I largely agree with what he is saying. Intellectual property rights are very much necessary but their nature may sometimes seem to be counterproductive and harmful (ex: paying royalties for singing “Happy Birthday”).
By many standards, I am a pirate. I often consume commercially accessible music by downloading it from third-party music sharing websites, many of which have already been taken down by intellectual property crusaders like the FBI (R.I.P. Sharebeast). Piracy is something that the music consumer culture is all too familiar with, but it’s not just the audience that is often accused of stealing from artists. The first thing I thought of when reading this article was the “controversy” of sampling in contemporary music. Musicians themselves are often accused of “biting” or “stealing” from the craft of other musicians, even when these artists are doing so in perfectly legal ways. For some reason, the idea of sampling in music is worth of censure to many. To these people, sampling is indicative of an artist’s lack of creativity and inability to produce anything authentically theirs. Do I even have to say anything about this kind of logic? I’m willing to bet that some of these people’s favorite songs make use of sampling (Ex: a recent smash hit and its main sample). Also, the process of sampling does not happen on a take-as-you-please basis. Artists that choose to sample the music of others must reach out to theses artists and ask for permission, as they should. So this notion that sampling is just “stealing” other artists’ music is just false.
Basically, I don’t think there is anything wrong with taking peoples ideas and using them to advance your own. As long as you give credit to your influences and are not parading the work of others’ as your own, then all is good. Lethem’s distinction between a market economy and a gift economy essentially sums up my opinion. The market economy is the economy we’re all familiar with but the gift economy is something more abstract. Gift exchange “establishes a feeling-bond between two people, whereas the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection” (Lethem 66). This definition is precisely why sometimes intellectual property rights can get muddy and confusing and why I think that “piracy” is not always entirely bad. In virtually every instance of “piracy”, the original content is untouched and merely distributed on a wide scale.
Sometimes, I think that the word “plagiarism” is used a little too liberally. Of course, claiming other people’s ideas as your own is not an intellectually honest thing to do, but I think it is clear that the gray area between honestly appropriating others’ ideas and stealing others’ ideas is often nebulous and unclear. It’s one of those things where you know it when you see it.