Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Domestic Zirkus

Whitecross Gallery

122 Whitecross Street, London


28 February - 4 April 2009

Just thought I'd give a quick pimp for an exhibition by a mate of mine, Tobius Feltus and his brother, Joseph, in collaboration with Caroline Bliemel and Elizabeth Krause. It's on in London, kicking off from today, which is a bit of a bastard cause I doubt I'll get along to it myself and it looks pretty cool. I'm digging the 19th century circus imagery, the surrealist edge and theatricality. If ye check out the interview there's even a quick glimpse of a self-portrait of the brothers Feltus that's got huge dollops of Caravaggio, I'd say. Anyhow, if you're in London over the next month or so, check it out.


Friday, February 27, 2009

Creative Control - Part 5

A Colour Out of Colourspace

To try and illustrate what colourspace is I’m going to switch to a “missing shade of green” example rather than a “missing shade of blue”. Cause we all remember mixing paints in art class at school, right? Mixing blue and yellow to make green? You’ve got red, yellow and blue as your primary colours. Then you’ve got orange, green and purple as the secondary colours you get by mixing them. You can arrange them on a colour wheel that models the transitions more gradually — red, reddish-orange, orange, yellowish-orange, yellow, and so on. And if you mix the three primary colours all up together you get the tertiary colours, the browns and greys. Simple, no? Of course, it’s not so simple at all, not by a long shot, but we’ll run with that RYB model as the one most people find intuitive. For now.

So, if you had a pile of mint leaves on your left and a pile of jade gemstones to your right, say, each is a different shade of green. Somewhere between them -- in potential terms -- is a shade of green that's not as light as mint but not as deep as jade. Maybe that shade occurs in nature -- in some particular type of sandgrass, say -- but maybe it doesn't. Ever. Maybe there's a grass that's almost at that precise mid-point but just a little too yellow. Maybe there's a leaf of a type of tree that's almost at that precise mid-point but just a little too blue. But this precise shade of green? No. Even if that particular shade doesn't occur in nature, if we've never seen it before, generally we can still imagine it. We can look at the mint and the jade and imagine something between them, half as light as one, half as deep as the other. Or we can look at the grass and the leaf and imagine one a little less yellowy, the other a little less bluey. If you close your eyes and visualise an evening sky, shading from dark blue on one horizon to light blue on another, can you visualise that sky with sort of a greenish tint, turquoise rather than azure? If so, I’d say it’s entirely possible that some point in that spectrum of shading might be a shade of green that doesn’t occur in nature, that you haven’t actually seen.

Why can you do this? Because all the shades we see in nature and call "green" are basically within a zone of colourspace, an area we might well describe in terms of proportions of the primary colours that are the basic dimensions of that colourspace. This idea of colourspace might be a bit harder to get your head round than the obvious Cartesian dimensionality of those other aspects of vision — the up and down, left and right, forward and back of physical space — but it’s the same principle. Light of mixed wavelengths stimulates the sensory receptors in our eyes and we input that data into an internal model, plot a point in colourspace that signifies that particular mix. Imagine it as a 3D space, where any shade is a point defined by it’s co-ordinates, (x, y, z), where X, Y and Z map to red, yellow and blue, the higher the co-ordinate value the richer it is in that colour. These are the symbolic dimensions by which we construct a shade of colour not just in our imagination but in our sensation itself. Right just a tiny bit. Up a way. Back a way. That’s the green we’re looking for. The colour wheel is all very well, but it’s basically a 2D spectrum looped round to form a circle of contiguous shades. It can’t account for browns because it doesn’t allow for the mixing of three primaries, so we need a colourspace rather than a colour wheel in order to factor on brown. Actually we kind of need an extra dimension of light-dark because the ratios of richness will give you a shade’s pigment, but that pigment can be also lightened or darkened in tone — which is where greys come into the picture, where you have contrasting shades even when the pigmentation is low, leading to a washed-out effect.

(Anyone not up on their colour theory should know that colourspace is actually modelled in terms of RGB, which you’ll probably know about from the way colour is defined for display on computer monitors, or in a CMYK system (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) which is used for printing, or in various other systems which are useful for other reasons. Colour perception can be modelled in an XYZ system of three stimulus values, an L*C*h system of light, chromaticity and hue, or an L*a*b* system which I’ll skip over just now cause it’d just confuse the issue. Anyone who is up on their colour theory should note that I’m steering clear of terms like “saturation”, “chromaticity”, “hue” and whatnot, talking in terms of “pigment” and “tone” precisely because mine is a spurious model based on a pretence that the old subtractive system of RYB actually works. OK then.)

The result of having this colourspace: I'm not saying we can just imagine up some Lovecraftian invention of a colour out of colourspace, a "squamf" or "zeebluth", “umpshzud” or “flim” that would constitute an entirely new dimension to our colourspace. We can however generally imagine the halfway point between "mint" and "jade" as two broadly-defined locations in colourspace. We have this imaginative model in our heads already, so it's (mostly) just a matter of developing our awareness of that internal palette. We know where these shades sit in relation to each other because they’re defined in relation to each other, mint “over thissa way” where the light shades of green sit, jade “over thatta way” where the deep shades of green sit. That colourspace is what we're actually working with at the perceptual level, underneath the words like “mint” or “jade” by which we label this or that particular shade, words which are really just benchmarks, nominal labels for familiar zones. Is “aquamarine” essentially a shade of blue or essentially a shade of green? The question is bollocks; “aquamarine” is a nominal label for a blue-green or green-blue point in colourspace that some people will insist is in the blue zone and that others will insist is in the green.

An example of where the nominal labels get silly: I had a weird conversation the other night when a mate who went to Art School referred to a cushion as green and everyone else in the room said, "no way, that's grey." I agreed with everyone else at first, but then shut up to take a proper look. At which point, after a bit of frowning and musing I figured that, yeah, the pigment was really low, so it was a very faded, greyish green, but if you subtracted out the light-black tonal qualities, it was actually in that region of colourspace you could reasonably call "green". What the whole discussion really came down to, I think, was that my Art School mate and myself were mapping that shade to a point in colourspace, because we've both had reason to develop that imaginative faculty at some point. Everyone else was fitting the shade of the cushion into their own discrete set(s) of nominal terms. As far as they were concerned, you've got "green" as a superset of various shades -- "jade", "mint", "grass" and so on. And "grey" is a distinct superset of quite different shades -- "ash", "steel", "slate". If a shade is in one superset, as far as they’re concerned, it can’t be in another. For them the shade had to be either grey or green. But the two of us were seeing it as a shade which you could say, in my RYB colourspace terminolgy, had X amount of yellowyness and Y amount of blueyness — combining, as those primary colours do, in an additive system, to a Z amount of greenyness.

If you get this sort of conflict between nominal and spatial modelling with our ideas of colour, we might want to ask ourselves, how far might the whole discourse of ideation be permeated by such a conflict? All Hume’s talk of impressions and ideas seems a little nominal to me. It’s “horse” and “horn”, not “equine” and “horned” — or “hooved”, “maned”, “male”, “female”. It’s like an idea is this… snapshot of an impression that’s a snapshot of an object. It’s a thing, an entity, an essential form we can name, just like “mint” and “jade” are, in the nominal view, sort of treated as essential forms of green. Like “aquamarine” is an essential form that can only be either green or blue. Because essential forms are discrete — “distinct and simple”.

My take on all this, by the way, comes from having worked in the dyeing industry, beside people that had been in the job for decades. Many of them could pretty much look at a sample of green thread and say not just, "this is too yellow" or "this is too blue" but "this needs redyed with X amount of one particular yellow dye and Y amount of another particular blue dye to be the right shade of green." They basically had the ability to map that shade to a point in colourspace in their heads, imagine the point that the dyed thread was meant to be at, figure out from that exactly how far it needed to be "shifted" in each dimension, and calculate how much of what particular dye they'd need to achieve that with a redye. I'd lay down good money that, with that level of visual imagination, these people basically knew their own conceptual colourspace so well that imagining that shade of green between mint and jade would be a piece of piss to them.

Caveat 1: Of course, colour-blindness throws a spanner in the works at the level of the perceptual/conceptual colourspace itself. Anyone who's dealing with one or other form of colour-blindness could be dealing with all manner of disordering in that system. Like having the "axes” of the 3D co-ordinate system of red, yellow and blue knocked out of whack, sitting at 45º angles rather than 90º angles, so that the various zones people generally discriminate within that space and label nominally with words like “jade” and “mint” are all squidged-in or overlapping. (Again, this is not what’s actually happening, cause my colourspace is a fabrication, but we’ll gloss over that for now.) Absolutely, that's going to affect someone’s ability to… play around with the colourspace in their head. It might well make it impossible for them to imagine that missing shade of green. This says nothing however about the capacity of those who aren’t colour-blind, does not support a proposition that it is essentially impossible to imagine a shade that one has never seen. Existence of a few unusual actualities is not proof of an essential truth.

Caveat 2: Most of us may not be great at visualising colours without recourse to benchmarks in the real world, of course. Hell, clearly the benchmarks are pretty important, because it's a damn sight easier to conjure up a shade of green in a reader's imagination by describing it in terms of mint, jade, grass, leaves and suchlike than by describing it in terms of ratios of chromatic saturation and whatnot. Saying that somewhere is halfway between this subway stop we know and that subway stop we know might be a lot easier for most of us to handle than if we were given an address in a city we’re not familiar with. But allowing for differences in natural talent we can generally develop our imaginative capacity in that regard with a bit of practice simply by getting to know the territory. Once you get to know Manhattan, realise that it’s mostly laid out in a blindingly simple system you don’t just know that "the corner of First Avenue and Tenth" is in the East Village; you know exactly where it is in the East Village. A painter, I'd say, is likely to be working with that sort of sense of the palette itself in their head. They're likely to think about colour in spatial terms, rather than nominal terms, be able to picture a shade in their head even before mixing the paints they need to get that colour. A predominance of actualities as the norm is still not proof of an essential truth, especially if there are exceptions who negate it.

What does this mean in terms of ideas and impressions and the articulations of those that we call “art”?

Well, any creative work, I’d argue, as an articulation, could be considered as similarly… plotting a point in some vast, conceptual, multi-dimensional framework of potential articulations. With writing alone, all the words in the language, all the grammatical structures they can be fitted into — these are your dimensions. The infinite unturned pages of The Book of All Hours on which those potential articulations may or may not be written one day — those unarticulated articulations are your missing shades. And the whole of that book up till now is a history of unplotted points being plotted, unwritten works being written. I don’t see how one could deny the blindingly obvious development from the first page, with its tallies of goats and sheep bought and sold, to the page you’re on now, the page of everything only just written, countless poems, plays, short stories, novels. Much of what you’ve flipped through reiterated and remixed what came before, sure, but there’s always been something new on every other page at least, some articulation that had simply not been written up until that point.

All the words in the language and all the words you can coin. All the grammatical structures they can be fitted into and all the structures you can construct that flout that grammar. Infinite unturned pages of unarticulated articulations, every one of them the creator’s equivalent of a missing shade of green. You’re as likely to be original by accident as by intent, I’d say.

How do you find your missing shade of green? If you see the “jade” of one artist, the “mint” of another, and you realise the shade you’re looking for is somewhere between, the way you reach it is not necessarily by sampling and remixing, “deriving” it from these “sources” just by slapping together equal parts of both. More likely it’s by mixing it on the palette yourself. You don’t use pure red, blue and yellow pigments in their boldest forms, no, but you don’t weave your own canvass either. So: a big dollop of cadmium green squeezed from the tube, a little chromium oxide green, a smidgeon of cobalt blue, a hint of hansa yellow pale to balance it, some titanium white to lighten it. What this is is a navigation of colourspace in the attempt to reach a certain point. What it’s not is a mating of “jade” and “mint” with a little baby “jade-mint” as some sort of hybrid progeny. Forget the nominal labels and the shades they’re slapped on. Forget any notion that what we’re dealing with here are essential forms clipped out and recombined — like some sideshow unicorn that’s really just a horse with a horn stuck to its head, or a baby chimerae stitched together from a lion cub and an eagle. That shade of green you end up at is a point in colourspace just like every other shade of green, but it just so happens to have an additional quality of newness simply because nobody has ever thought to use that exact shade before. It’s original.

So is originality just that… novelty? And if so, is it really worth shouting about? Maybe your painting is marginally more interesting with that previously-unused shade of green, but it could still be banal tosh. Maybe your new OS has bells and whistles, but maybe we don’t want that klaxon every time an email arrives. Maybe nobody’s built a dog-waxing machine before, but maybe that’s for a very good reason. Maybe you’ve found the lost chord, but you worked it into a shit jingle. Maybe you invented a whole language for your one million page fantasy novel, but it’s still turgid, reactionary bollocks. Hell, maybe you were trying so hard to be original you neglected every other facet of your craft and still managed to reinvent the wheel because, well, that missing shade of green…? Actually, all the rest of us have seen it umpteen times.

I’m not interested in celebrating originality for it’s own sake, only in recognising it as a potential quality. Actually, I think Jarmusch is right to focus on authenticity, and I’m as wary of the viewpoint that idealises originality as I am of the viewpoint that denies it. Because articulation is inherently combinatory and the sense of inspired genius that attaches to originality is romantic bollocks, but at the same time that articulation does more than just cannibalise what came before and the sense of derivative remixing that comes with the absolute denial of originality is reductive essentialism. With this whole colourspace analogy, actually, I feel like I’m trying to articulate my own missing shade of green, somewhere between the “jade” of one and the “mint” of another.

I’ll see if I can at least get close to it.

Aesthemes and the Real Colourspace

OK. So Hume is strangely happy to accept that we could imagine that missing shade of blue, even though he thinks it a vaid counter-example to his theory — an idea not born of an impression. The notion of colourspace explains why we should be able to do that, but at the same time it does so by redefining the shades he sees as distinct and simple things into different terms entirely — into nominally labelled zones artificially delimited within a framework of potentialities. While this deconstruction of the notion of ideas and impressions as essential forms might well be reconcilable with an idea that all conception is born of perception (assuming the colourspace itself is a development of our perception), it might also suggest that what’s born is actually an entire system that’s capable of generating all the concepts that could possible be perceived (assuming that once we have the colourspace we can visualise any colour within it). The question is: just how dependent on perception is that colourspace? How much perception has to take place before we’ve learned the system and can navigate our way around it?

Here’s an idea to throw into the mix: maybe that question is the wrong way round, because those colours that define colourspace — red, blue and yellow — well, maybe they should be classed as ideas rather than impressions, concepts rather than percepts. They are, after all, entirely spurious.

See, all the light has is a mix of wavelengths — from long to short. The variances of intensity at each wavelength could actually be plotted on a 2D graph, but this is not what we do. We measure the proportions of light of different wavelengths with receptors of different sensitivities, but where red and blue map neatly to long and short wavelengths, to model everything as a variance of intensities along the spectrum of purples between them would be sod all use to us. A lot of pure red, a little pure blue, a hint of violet, a shitload of magenta, a dollop of fuschia — all you end up with is muddle of purple. You don’t just want to end up at whatever middling shade of purple you get by mixing those shades together in the relevant proportions. We don’t just want to know the average wavelength; we want to know the general shape of the curve we’d be plotting on that graph if we had receptors sensitive to wavelengths at regular intervals. So we measure the medium wavelengths too. And what we sort of get, roughly speaking, is a sense of the relative proportions of long and short, long and medium, medium and short. Leastways, this is my understanding of it.

This is where it gets interesting, because those medium wavelengths are modeled with a dimension of their own, but it’s not yellow. Actually, it’s green. All that stuff about green being a mixture of blue and yellow? That’s how you make it with paint, but it’s not how you make it in your head. In your head it’s a primary colour, a basic dimension of colourspace. But this doesn’t mean we just abandon the RYB model for an RGB system. Oh, no. Because yellow is also a primary colour in your head. It doesn’t even map directly to its own distinct range of wavelengths — our sense of it is the perceptual product of a mix of wavelengths that’s heavy on the long and medium but light on the short — but despite it being constructed basically from a mix of red and green light, we perceive it as a colour in its own right. The way it actually works is we have three sets of primary colours paired off into “opponent processes” — white-black, red-green, yellow-blue. For each process, stimulating a perception of one member of the pair inhibits the perception of the other. These are the three axes we’re really working with and they’re the basis of that L*a*b* system I glossed over earlier — L representing luminance, a representing a proportional relationship of red and green, b representing a proportional relationship of yellow and blue. Those are the real X, Y and Z axes of the colourspace in our imagination, and the official CIELAB colourspace that defines it scientifically (with red and yellow on the positive sides of their axes, green and blue on the negative,) is the most complete model there is, capable of describing all the colours visible to the human eye. What’s actually happening with the clour-blindness I glossed over earlier is most often that the absence of one type of cone fucks with your ability to differentiate along one axis (most commonly the red-green). For the rest of us, that colourspace is what lets us imagine a missing shade of blue or green we’ve never seen. The shades aren’t discrete. It’s just that an easy way to navigate is to use the names of objects as benchmarks. This colour is “mint”. That colour is “jade”.

But think about. This is like hearing a choir of voices, each singer singing one note that you could play on the keys of a piano, but at different volumes. It’s like not being able to discern the individual notes, being sensitive only to ranges of notes. It’s like hearing the high range of notes as a /r/ sound, the low range of notes as a /f/ sound, and the medium range of notes as an /l/ sound which is really pretty weird. It’s like having a /s/ sound which you hear only when there’s low and medium notes at high volume but the high notes are quiet, which is weirder still. It’s like hearing that entire choir in “shades” of pitch defined by the fact that you can’t hear /r/ and /l/ together or /f/ and /s/ together, but you can still create a mix of sounds, combined with a quality of loudness, that you can distinguish an incredible amount of detail in. It’s like labelling particular “shades” of sound in this soundspace with the names of objects in the world that hum in a distinctive mix of frequencies at various volumes, in a world where everything is in a constant state of reverberation. This sound is “granite”. That sound is “quartz”.

That the dimensions of that colourspace model are as abstract as that, as purely symbolic really, as the specific smell you sense when a certain chemical comes into contact with a sensory receptor in your nose — this radically undermines Hume’s theory that all ideas are generated from impressions. It is only, I think, the predominance of our visual and kinaesthetic sense of physical orientation, the highly spatial focus of our experience, that leads us to concentrate on those types of perception which model the world as a sort of wireframe simulation, a point-to-point mapping that represents (re-presents) rather than symbolises. Because of this, I think, we end up ignoring the very real extent to which many of our impressions are themselves ideas. Our perception is intrinsically conceptualised in many respects. Red and green, yellow and blue — these are arbitrary symbols we’ve invented. They’re aesthemes, base units of a sensory and ideational language in which they no more represent their signified than the letter “I” represents the person writing this blog entry, no more than the sound of the word “you” represents the person reading it. No more than those /r/ and /l/ or /f/ and /s/ sounds would actually represent the frequencies of vibrations in the air.

These aesthemes are products of semiosis, not mimesis, and it’s not just that we’ve made one memory or set of memories a signifier for another, as with the inner voicing of the word “cat” and the memory of the cat we’re referring to. We just made the signifiers up. Oh, maybe we didn’t do it individually but as a species, in an evolutionary process of developing innate conceptual tools for making sense of the info coming in through our eyes. But there’s a chance, as I understand it, that the absence of words for certain colours in certain languages is an inheritance of that process playing out, the development of aesthemes and their organisation into opponent processes traceable in distinct stages. Either way, these aesthemes are, at the end of the day, complete fabrications, entirely spurious ideas on which the impressions themselves are built.

Think of it this way: If we took a spectrum of human heights instead of the spectrum of visible light, within any given area on a map we could gather information on the number of people of certain heights. There are equations in colour physics by which, if we mapped that range of heights to the appropriate range of wavelengths, treated it as the data you’d get from a spectrometer, we could calculate a point in a model of colourspace, define a shade. We could assign that shade to that area on the map, colour it in, and if we did this with every area on the map the result would be a colour-coded modelling of the proportions of different heights across the territory. The colour-coding of our vision is no less arbitrary than the colour-coding of that map. Red, green, blue and yellow are the "squamf", "zeebluth", “umpshzud” and “flim” we’ve evolved. In terms of modelling the mixtures of wavelengths in light they’re clearly useful, but they’re far from precise; there’s the problem of metamerism, for example, where quite different sets of data can result in the same shade, meaning we can’t actually be sure what mix of wavelengths that shade is referring to. Just as “cat” might refer to a beloved feline or a groovy hipster, dig? That’s how symbolic our ideational impression of colour is.

The point of all this… colour aesthetics geekdom is that the whole “missing shade” question offers a good perspective, I think, on the whole question of “originality”. The idea that all creative works an artist could conceivably bring into existence will be responses to and reworkings of the creative works they have experienced reads to me as an assumption of nominal parsing, content-oriented perspective. It’s the idea that everything we can imagine will be a response to and reworking of (our experience of) the imaginative products of others. It reads as an assumption that there’s these “distinct and simple” things which any work of art contains — characters, plots, themes, etc. — things that have been “put” into them by a creator who themself has to “get” them from somewhere. It’s the idea that there’s these “distinct and simple” shades which any image-in-our-head contains — “jade”, “mint”, “grass”, etc. — and which we have to “get” individually by experiencing each in turn. The assumption is that if the creator has these things in their head to use it’s because they themselves have “taken” them from somewhere. And the assumption is that the somewhere in question is some sort of huge cultural trove of tropes that are “contained” in previous works. The creative worker can’t really be original because everything they’ve done can be traced back to that trove. Every idea is actually a representation/re-presentation of experience.

Given that something as basic as colour is actually an ideational impression, a semiotic artifice composed of arbitrary aesthemes, this just reads to me as essentialist philosophy contradicted by real science. That you can construct a novel shade in colourspace, in fact, implies to me that with any such aesthetic system we might construct an “idea” that is entirely new, at least to ourselves. Playing around with an artistic medium, dissatisfied with this or that existing articulation, we might set them in opposition in order to identify their differences, in order to relate them in terms of a framework of potentialities, in order to plot the midpoint where those differences are resolved, to formulate an articulation that is our own creative artwork equivalent of a missing shade of green. How far might originality reside in articulating that midpoint when everyone else is insisting that only this or that is possible? How far might it reside in plotting another point entirely that places the three in balance as corners of an equiateral triangle, or in articulating the greater complexity of a zone that contains both by plotting a whole host of points, defining a sphere which this and that are only specks on the surface of? How far might ideas that some see as “distinct and simple” be viewed by others as mere labels for points in a vast framework of ideational potential? How far might unoriginality reside in a habitual tendency to rely on those conventional sets and supersets of labels, as if one were to live under the assumption that the only places in a city it was even possible to go were those subway stops marked with names on a topological map of the underground?

One might push Hume’s supposition further. Suppose our test subject was raised in some grim environment where everything was painted in tertiary colours — shades of brown and grey. He’s never seen a bright red, a true blue, a pure yellow. He’s never even seen orange, purple or green. All he’s ever seen are reddish-brown, blueish-grey, yellowish-brown, orangey-brown, purpley-grey, greeny-grey. Still, by relating those colours he has seen to each other he might be able to develop an understanding of the colourspace inside his head, an understanding that the reddishness of certain browns is a constituent feature as is the yellowishness of other browns, the bluishness of certain greys. He might be able to abstract the underlying structure, the aesthemes they’re composed of — white and black, red and green, blue and yellow — to imagine these shades in a purity he’s never seen simply because they’re the basic constituent qualities of every shade that he has seen. If he could place however many reddish-brown objects in a row in front of him, each a little more reddish than the last, could he project a continuation of the series to a true red? If he can’t quite visualise the pure colour in his head, maybe he’d have a niggling certainty of its existence, an idea that he can’t quite articulate in his mind’s eye of a strange new shade that could be achieved if only one could subtract the similarities, eliminate the redundancies, the qualities of brown that render everything much of a muchness. Maybe this would lead to an attempt to make that shade. Scraping, melting, grinding, burning, dissolving, mixing, sifting — there’s a lot of shit you can do to the objects around you that might end up in an unusual outcome. All he has to do at the end of the day is claw at his own skin to see what’s underneath and, if he did so, seeing the sudden brilliant red of his own blood, maybe he’d recognise it as exactly what he’s been looking for, this part of a puzzle he’s been trying to put together. The unrealised potential in a system of possibilities encompassing far more than simply what is actual.

That senario is not so far off, I think, from one sort of ideation process you find in creativity. I’m tempted to say it may well be the core process — the artistic drive a large-scale version of that feeling you have when a word is on the tip of your tongue, when you can think of a half-dozen other words that sort of fit but none of them is quite right, the difference being that when you scale it up you’re not always dealing with articulations that are conventional — because they’re basic components of the language — but may well be seeking to articulate something that has never before been articulated. You’re doing this not for the novelty of it, but because the model in your head means you can imagine what meaning resides in that locale but until it’s made manifest, articulated, the full detail of that meaning is simply not evident. You know almost exactly where you want to go but, working with imagination, you know only vaguely what it looks like there. The drive may be exacerbated by a conviction that nobody else has articulated what you’re striving to, but it’s not that you want to be different, it’s that the absence is a problem, that there’s some issue that what is absent may resolve.

That is creativity, as far as I’m concerned, and when you find that articulation, at whatever magnitude and with whatever outcome, that is originality.

Creative Control - Part 4

Transcriptions, Translations, Recontextualisations, Redactions, Reinventions

We’ve all heard the argument, may have used it ourselves. There’s only seven basic plots. There’s nothing new under the sun. And so on. In the spirit of this sentiment, I’m going to steal a quote from Jim Jarmusch by way of Chris Roberson, one which puts a distinct spin on the whole notion of originality:

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery — celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: ‘It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to.’”

Now I’m the first to celebrate the whole idea of reuse. The remixing of existing texts like Aeschylus’s PROMETHEUS BOUND or Euripedes’s THE BACCHAE is a core technique in VELLUM and INK, so I’d be a hypocrite to scorn reuse in and of itself. Yes, I’ve laid out where I think there are issues of “conspiracy to defraud” — a sort of “forgery” or “counterfeiting”, a copying of tickets which simply opens up entry to a service provided by another — and yes, I think there’s a small proportion of cases where reuse of this or that aspect of an articulation constitutes the ethically dubious act we call plagiarism. But in condemning Horseshit Hirst’s hypocrisy and condoning Cartrain’s use of an image of Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull, I’ve also made it clear, I hope, how far I think the concept of “fair use” or “fair dealing” should extend beyond the limits currently set. Which is to say, I don’t think what Cartrain did was really plagiarism. Being an unashamed member of the Remix Generation, however, and an advocate for the authenticity of collage, doesn’t mean I’m quite willing to buy into the argument that collage is all there is, that “nothing is [truly] original”.

Let’s tease Jarmusch’s statement apart a little. Given that I don’t believe in “intellectual property”, I can’t really describe the act of reuse as “theft”. The direct and personal experiences of “dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows,” and suchlike are not capable of being owned, so they’re not capable of being stolen. The direct and personal experiences undergone in the act of transfer entailed when one watches a film, reads a book or poem, views a painting or photograph — these don’t “belong” to the artist anymore than the architect of a bridge owns its image in your vision as you stand there gazing at it. So for me it’s simply wrong to think of your imagination being fuelled by such experiences as “thievery”.

Now, much of learning how to make a work of art, the simple craft of putting together this… articulation of an information-pattern, comes from devouring the work of others, gleaning the potentialities of the medium from their being made manifest in this film or that novel, coming to recognise the tricks and techniques that underlie these works, replicating them. Much of developing one’s own voice as a… style of structuring comes from copying the styles of others, not just the superficial execution — the particular types of ways, for example, in which one writer puts particular types of words together into particular types of clauses, phrases, sentences and paragraphs (the copying of which allows us to render a scene in “Joycean” stream-of-consciousness or “Chandleresque” hardboiled prose) — but the deeper style of structurings at other levels — the use of particular types of character, for example, plot or setting, the use of tropes of any form, or even simply of certain themes and ideas which might make a work read as anything from “sort of Phildickian in its mindfuckery” to “an outright Tolkien clone”. Is this all there is though? Are those “Joycean” and “Chandleresque” styles themselves simply remixes of styles that came before? Were Dick and Tolkien, essentially speaking, not adding anything new? Despite what he says himself, I’d describe Jarmusch’s work as deeply original precisely because however much it may have “taken things from” all manner of sources, where he has “taken them to” is quite unique.

Imagine there’s this book that contains everything ever written and everything never written, the entirety of all possible permutations of every language, past, present and future. The book is opened with the invention of writing. The turning of each page is the creation of a text. In the first few pages we see only the accountacy of Sumerian scribes, stocktaking and contracts. Turn another page and suddenly we have Gilgamesh. Flick forward and we have Inanna’s Descent, Dumuzi’s Dream, and on, and on. The symbols these texts are written in may have been used in earlier records of day-to-day trade and suchlike, but these fictions, where they first appear, are something new, something novel. We’re not going to say that they’re unoriginal simply because they “reuse” the words of the language itself, are we? We’re not going to say that a writer isn’t original because all the words they use are in the dictionary, right? That would surely be stretching the meaning of the term “original”.

The writing is just a metaphor, mind; imagine that turning of a page represents the telling of a tale, the act of spoken recitation, beginning not in Sumer but long before. Still, with the turning of each page articulations are coming into existence that have never before existed. They are originating.


Imagine as writing spreads in the world, each page you’re turning in this Book of All Hours becomes more and more cramped, the scribbling smaller, poems, plays, stories, essays, thousands of creative acts taking place simultaneously around the world, at the same instant, with the turning of a page of history. Many of these acts replicate acts already written down on earlier pages — a version of Gilgamesh copied out by a later scribe, say. They may replicate those earlier acts exactly, as word-for-word transcriptions. Or they may fail to do so, introducing errors with an incorrect transcription. Or they may translate an earlier work into a different language or simply adapt it to the different idiom of a culture that has changed over time. These are rearticulations that differ ony superficially, but wherever even the subtlest of changes are introduced — in the mistakes that put one symbol where another should be, in the decisions that map obsolete or foreign words and phrases to expressions that only just about do the job (and one could argue that no two words in different languages or in different times and places are ever going to mean exactly the same thing) — wherever the text on one page is not identical to the text on a page that came before, there may well be profound effects. Even the subtlest of differences could radically alter the process of transfer that takes place when one reads a text, entirely change one’s reading. Maybe such subtle changes don’t have such substantial ramifications though. Maybe they aren’t enough for us to distinguish this transcription or translation as “original”. Maybe what we’re trying to point at when we describe something as “not original” is precisely a degree of replication which renders one work an adaptation of another, a reiteration which might be different but only at a superficial level.

Originality is not absolute. It is not an either/or proposition. A work is made more or less original by the degree of its difference from other works. And how we define “substantiality” is flexible enough that we can happily describe a new translation of Gilgamesh into English as “original” even though it is striving, one would hope, to be as faithful an adaptation of its source as possible. That we can and do use “originality” in this way, that many words can and do have different meanings in different contexts, is one reason we don’t stretch the meaning of the term “original” to rule out works which “reuse” the words in the dictionary. Every new articulation puts the words it uses into a new context, creates a whole that is more than the sum of its parts by recontextualising every element within it. The combination that has never before been articulated is an original articulation in and of itself; it has just originated. (Horseshit Hirst’s hypocrisy is all the more obnoxious given that his diamond-encrusted skull, like so much conceptual art, justifies itself as art almost entirely on that basis, situating the creative act solely in the recombination of pre-existing components — the skull and the diamonds — in the meaning that emerges from the juxtaposition, the recontextualisation, of both. The recontextualisation carried out via this crude collaging of physical objects is sufficient, he is asserting, for it constitute an “original creative work”. In challenging Cartrain’s collage, which treats a photograph of his work as an object in the world and applies to it the exact same technique of juxtaposition, of recontextualisation, he is denying the validity of the technique, refusing to recognise the new meaning that emerges from this recombination. He doesn’t have a leg to stand on, I’d say. Anyway…)

Keep turning the pages and we find another technique of scribes emerging. A scribe of latter-day Babylonia may combine numerous variant versions of different tales of Gilgamesh, say, from throughout Mesopotamian history, may wire them together into a distinctly individual tale told with a distinctly individual voice and vision — as the scribe Sin-Leqi-Unninni did, to the extent that John Gardner’s translation refuses to use other versions to fill in gaps resulting from fragmented records, preferring to offer a “chaste” text which reflects the cohesiveness of that voice and vision. Sin-Leqi-Unninni’s Gilgamesh may be a redaction that ultimately relies quite heavily on its sources, but even as such it has a uniqueness. Is this a good point to start talking about a work as “original”? It is surely as original an act as that which takes, from nature and existing culture, the ideas of clay-bricks, buildings, temples, mountains, pyramid forms, steps, and so on, and recombines them into the first ziggurat. Which may not be that original, it must be said, given the ubiquity of those elements in that time and place. Were we to unearth earlier temples of a construction similar enough that the ziggurat was only the next logical step in an evolution of forms, we might well see this as no great innovation. Had we more cuneiform records of the evolution of the Gilgamesh text(s) we might not consider Sin-Leqi-Unninni’s version worthy of distinction. The point is that where we do maybe that distinction is what we are signifying with the term “originality”.

Flick forward in The Book of All Hours. Flick forward page after page after page from the first Gilgamesh text which introduces us to their Flood legend, and we still haven’t come to the remix of the Sumerian Flood story that’s written down in Genesis. All the works that later scribe took as sources in their construction of Jewish scripture might exist, but their own particular articulation does not, not yet. Lick a finger, curl a page and we’re at the instant of “taking”, the scribe having read those sources, “taken” from them events, characters, ideas, maybe even distinct expressions. The scribe is just about to utilise these things, to “take them to” his or her own retelling, their remix, but we don’t know what that remix will be, not yet. We don’t yet know “where” they will “take” these things. And then we turn the page and find that this scribe has taken them somewhere new. On this just-turned page what we find is not a transcript or a translation. It’s not even a redaction. It could be considered a remix but it’s not even as if it’s sampling phrases directly from those sources. It’s not like the reuse of a bass-line or a turn of phrase. Oh, we can see that the basic story has been reused — “borrowed” or “stolen” we might say in the language of intellectual property — but it’s been rearticulated in a quite different way, to quite different ends. It’s not a redaction; it’s a reinvention. One characteristic — definitive, even — element of the articulation, its basic plot-structure, has been taken from the source and placed into a new context which utterly transforms its meaning.

This is where things get tricky.

Where It Gets Tricky

See, the principle of droit d’auteur recognises that this sort of copying and reuse of another’s service could well be a gross abuse of the spirit in which it has been provided. The Biblical version of the Flood utterly transforms the thematics of the Sumerian story by combining the roles of Enlil, king of gods, who orders the deluge, and Enki, god of wisdom, who warns the hero of its coming. Where the Sumerian tale presents the deluge as the work of an intemperate overlord whose attitude to humanity is far from benevolent, whose might may not be right, and offers an ethical opposition to him in figure of a merciful intercessor, the Biblical tale ultimately sanctions the genocidal destruction of most of humanity by ascribing it to a God whose wisdom, justice and mercy are presented as unquestionable. The potential offensiveness to an author should be obvious if you imagine a reinvention of the Biblical tale which kept God as the cruel tyrant who sent the Flood, but introduced Lucifer as the noble rebel who warned one human in order to save the entire race. Given some of my own reinventions it’s fortunate we accept this in cases where the author is long dead. Reinventions which completely invert the moral subtext of some folktale or legend are hardly unusual in fantasy, and given the dubious moral subtexts of many such traditional tales this is no bad thing, I think. But when the reinventions and recontextualisations are of works whose creators are still alive, well, it might be a different story, so to speak. Even something as simple and singular as a character can be revamped, as happens regularly in comics, the whole mythos reconfigured around them in such a way as to radically repurpose them; and if you want an idea of just how objectionable this could be, imagine Siegel and Schuster’s Superman, one year after his purchase by DC Comics in 1938, being handed over to a writer who equated the Man of Steel with Nietszche’s ubermensch and used the character to articulate their own fascist sympathies.

It’s the right of the creative worker, I think, to ensure that sort of shit doesn’t happen in their lifetime. Where copyright is assigned to an estate and/or executor it’s their right and their responsibility, I think, to ensure that sort of shit doesn’t happen for as long as copyright pertains. Regardless of work-for-hire contracts and corporate “ownership”, in fact, I’d say it’s the right of the creative worker to challenge any such co-option even of a work they sold off wholesale, before or after the fact of creation. Legally, they may be pissing in the wind, and an ethical inversion of thematics is not going to be easy to prove in court, but they’re certainly entitled to kick up a stink. And I’m not so sure it would be unworkable to introduce an “unfair use” clause that rendered corporate “ownership” null and void where it flagrantly perverted the purpose of the creator, where it could be argued reasonably that a re-invention breached an implicit “good faith” assumption that the character would continue to be used for the same purpose. What’s impracticable is simply the idea of getting a law passed such that someone in the position of Helen Aberson and Harold Perl, for example, the writer and illustrator of the children’s book that DUMBO is based on, might take Disney to court for, say, introducing a racist character like Jim Crow or throwing in some right wing anti-union propaganda in the form of evil clowns. As long this is the case I pretty much wholeheartedly support the scorn of corporate copyright embodied in, say, MICKEY MOUSE IN VIETNAM, the 16mm short made by Lee Savage in 1968 or thereabouts, where the character “owned” by Disney but created by Ub Iwerks is shipped to Vietnam and shot dead. Ub Iwerks might justly tell me to shut the fuck up, and I would, but Disney? Disney can shove it. Corporate “ownership” is just a product of the power differential, the privilege of businessmen who can crowbar their talent into “selling” what isn’t sellable because it isn’t “property”. All there ever is is a license to use the service provided by the worker or workers who toiled to produce it. It may be a license to use that service freely, in whole or in part, but (with a caveat that I might be willing to admit of exceptions argued convincingly enough) that license should always be revokable by the creator, and until it is I see little reason to respect an inequitous privilege.

The political rejection of such privilege is part of why I support the remixing of Mickey Mouse in Savage’s short, but it’s only part of it. The creative potential of recontextualisation is why I go a little further in a different direction and support the remixing of Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull in Cartrain’s collage as “fair use”; if it samples and repurposes what it samples, it does so, I think, with the same degree of change (in going from 3D to 2D) that we find in Mickey Mouse parodies like Rat Fink or Mad magazine’s Mickey Rodent. Critique cannot be outlawed and satire is a valid form of critique that requires an element of copying. Cartrain’s work is, I think, entirely justifiable on that basis. Still, this possibility of objectionable reinventions is why if I released “Die! Vampire, Die!” under a Creative Commons licenses with a “no derivatives” option rather than just the “non-commercial” option. See, I was chuffed to bits to find fanart of my characters, Jack and Puck, on deviantArt. I’d most likely be equally chuffed to bits to find fanfic. Hell, even if it’s godawful writing that makes me cringe to see my creations so ineptly handled, it won’t offend me. But if you decide you want to base your story on the Jack Flash from that thread in INK where he’s basically a Nazi, if you’ve somehow managed to miss the entire point of that thread so you end up writing a story which heroises fascism, well, if it’s a choice between giving anyone carte blanche to do that and retaining the right to sue the ass off the one cretin who does, I think my choice is pretty clear. You want to support fascism, don’t abuse whatever service I’ve provided by reusing its components to those ends. That’s not why I took the time to scribble out my own work in one corner of a page of this theoretical Book of All Hours.

Flick all the way forward to that page. There’s a ton of other stuff on it, written by other hands. Within my own work you can see where I’m sampling from earlier pages, the words of Aeschylus or Virgil or Euripedes, the style of Joyce (partly by way of Whittemore), the ideas of Moorcock and others. You can see where I’m remixing. The Book of All Hours is itself an acknowledged remixing of Lovecraft’s Necronomicon and Borges’s Book of Sand. I don’t “conceal my thievery”. And if that makes you see my work as essentially “just” collage, as “only” a remix, I’m not too fussed, to be honest; what it samples is all torn apart and rebuilt at the lowest level, cause I’m not interested in just regurgitating another’s idea, rephrasing their expressions, but if anything fits this vague idea of Masnick’s that “[a]ll works are inspired by and use bits and pieces of what they've learned or what they've seen, heard and felt,” then VELLUM and INK are pretty good contenders. But on page after page after page of those you’ve flicked through to get to the page of the theoretical Book of All Hours on which my actual Book of All Hours is just a scribble in the corner, I’d argue, you’ll have been passing over other creative works that were not transcriptions or translations, not redactions or reinventions, and not even remixes in the way mine is, not to that extent. You’ll have been passing over creative works that were original.

The idea that you won’t strikes me as a deeply unsound philosophical proposition.

The Missing Shade of Blue

This notion that all creative works an artist could conceivably bring into existence will be responses to and reworkings of the creative works they have experienced because this is essentially how art is produced has always struck me as reminiscent of Hume’s theory, articulated in AN ENQUIRY INTO HUMAN UNDERSTANDING, of the generation of ideas from impressions. For Hume all ideation is a recombination of sensation. Breaking his duality up into a more complex quaternity, it doesn’t seem entirely off the ball to me at first sight. We have sensory receptors that are triggered by stimuli patterned by the world itself, the confusion of light and matter registering physically as reception. We parse those signals into our senses, make sense of them, registering them experientally as perception. We process these perceptions, some of which are entirely kinaesthetic senses of our physical selves, parse them into units of events which are in turn parsed into beings and doings, objects and actions, which are in turn parsed into qualities of those objects and actions. We have an imaginative faculty which allows us to recall into an inner experience what we have experienced, as a memory — of a cat we used to own, say. We can even use some of these memories as symbols, as when we “hear” a word in our inner voice. Hume’s argument might be read as characterising that word as our memory of the series of sounds it’s built from: the voiceless velar plosive of a /k/, followed by the open front unrounded vowel of an /a/, followed by the voiceless dental plosive of a /t/. Somewhere in this process of recombination we end up with a level of abstraction sufficient that we refer to its constituent parts as ideas rather than impressions, the concepts of thought rather than the percepts of sense. Reception leads to perception which leads to conception. If we want to fully map the internal workings of the agent, we should, I think, identify the subsequent stage of inception which closes the circle in processing ideas into actions, those actions affecting the world and thereby affecting subsequent reception. Rip out the perception and conception and you have the stimulus-response protocols of any primitive organism. Accept that there might be an evolutionary benefit in an ability to de-automise those protocols — an ability to model a situation, run scenarios on how that situation might play out with different responses, evaluate those potential outcomes and act accordingly — and I think you have a fairly plausible argument for why we’re not so primitive, why we have these weird things that Hume calls impressions and ideas.

Still, so far so recombinatory. In Hume’s theory even an idea that is entirely imaginary can be understood as ultimately grounded in experience. That fanciful idea of a unicorn is not just magicked into mythology from nowhere. It is a complex idea, constructed from the idea of a horse and the idea of a horn, both of which are born from our impressions of horses and horns. It is a collage, not a truly original creation. (Not to mention that it’s probably inspired by an impression of someone else’s badly-articulated impression of a rhino anyway.) To find a truly original creation we’d have to identify a “simple” idea — one that isn’t a collage of others — which we have never had an impression of. All the quirks of strange fiction, to put it in a pertinent perspective, all the counterfactual errata, the hypothetical novae, the metaphysical chimerae — Nazi presidents and robot stormtroopers and butterfly-winged faeries — these are not pure invention. Rather they’re remixes of the world as we live in it, as we experience it. We simply cannot, Hume argues, invent an entirely spurious idea by an imaginative leap into the void. His argument is not unconvincing, and it’s a sense of this recombinatory aspect to imagination that, I think, leads many to assert that “nothing is original” in art. It’s not an unwarranted supposition, but I think it’s a misreading of what we mean by the term original in respect to art.

See, Hume does something quite strange that has troubled generations of philosophers ever since. Immediately after expounding his theory that you can’t have a simple idea that’s not based on an impression, he offers a counter-example that appears to refute that theory. Working on the assumption that shades of colour are distinct and simple as impressions and ideas, he presents a scenario where a man lives to thirty years with his sight, becoming “perfectly acquainted with colours of all kinds, except one particular shade of blue, for instance, which it never has been his fortune to meet with.” Place before that man all the different shades except the one he hasn’t seen and, Hume argues, it’s obvious that he’ll see that there’s one missing, “that there is a greater distance in that place between the contiguous colours than in any other.” Further, Hume argues, there are few who’d argue that he couldn’t imagine that shade. It’s an exception that he accepts but disregards as “scarcely worth our observing”, not worth changing the theory for, but in doing so he opens up a can of worms. What if our man has become perfectly acquainted with triangles of all kinds, with any number of variant proportions in the lengths of their sides, except the one which happens to have all sides of equal length? He’s never seen an equilateral triangle. Can he imagine it? What if our man has become perfectly acquainted with regular polygons of any number of sides, except the one which happens to have all eight? He’s never seen an octagon. Can he imagine it? What if our man has become perfectly acquainted with all manner of animals with hooves, except the one which happens to be a stallion? He’s never seen a male horse. Can he imagine it?

Where Hume creates trouble for his own theory (only to blithely disregard it) is in asserting that shades of colour are distinct and simple, but it’s not that the “missing shade of blue” necessarily invalidates his whole theory. It just points us to the fact that these apparently “distinct and simple” ideas are actually integrated in a coherent system, a colourspace.

[Next: The Colour Out of Colourspace]

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Creative Control - Part 3

I Got a Golden Ticket!

The principle of droit d’auteur is a recognition of the causal association of the service offered by the creative worker and the toil that went into providing that service, the fact that the service is entirely dependent on the toil, and that the creative worker is entirely free to withhold that service or to provide it only on whatever conditions they set, to require recompense from service users for each individual transfer so as to cover the cost of the toil. The creative worker doesn’t have to open their house up to the public, and if they do they’re quite entitled to set conditions on entry. It’s not about “ownership”. It’s simply that we’re offering a service and we can do so on whatever terms we want. You want to see what it’s like to live in our house for a bit, to use our service, well, we do require that you accept certain conditions. And actually, more often than not the creative workers provide service users with a come-all-you-want ticket — a book, a disc or a file — which allows that service user unlimited transfers. You can come back and visit our house any time once you’ve bought the ticket. You don’t just get one reading of that book you buy. You can read it as many times as you want. Hell, we’d love for you to do so. We’d love for you to use that ticket so many times you wear it out and have to buy a new one. Even if you don’t wear it out, the more you use this service, the more likely it is you’ll come back to us for the next service we offer.

The service user can even pass that ticket onto someone else, lend it or sell it second-hand. We don’t see any benefit from the second-hand sale, but we’re happy for you to sell your ticket on once you have no use for it, to… transfer your membership. It’s an act of good faith on our part, a willingness to treat the money from the ticket sale that goes into your pocket rather than ours as an investment. If you don’t appreciate our service enough to keep the ticket, you’re less likely to come back for more, while that new service user is a new opportunity who we’ll welcome with open arms. We’ll give them the exact same service we gave you. The only condition we set here is that you do not rent your ticket, because this is basically you setting yourself up on the street outside, leading service users away from the front door, sneaking them in a side-entrance and pocketing the cash. This is not theft of “intellectual property”; it’s basically a sort of conspiracy to defraud. The service user renting their ticket from an unauthorised agent is obtaining our service under false pretences. In orchestrating repeated instances of this for your own profit, you are basically conspiring to swindle us into providing a service without recompense. All that toil to be paid for, all that service we provide — and the profit you’re making is directly proportional to the value that results, and directly proportional to our loss of revenue. We might license you to do something like this if you want to share those profits. We might be happy to provide you tickets for rental as a business venture — as in the DVD rental business — but you don’t get to just rip us off.

But we’re not cut-throat about it. We allow for unlimited repeat borrowings on a non-commercial basis even when we don’t see a penny from them. With literature there are these incredible places called libraries through which we offer the service to users absolutely free. They can go and borrow a ticket, and make use of the service as many times as they want before they have to return it. In the UK, there is a royalty system, Public Lending Rights, whereby we recieve a tiny payment for each borrowing. But this doesn’t apply in the US, where the only money we see is from the initial purchase of a single ticket that will be reused countless times. In some respects this is worth it for the nationwide sales and exposure. As people who believe in art we may even wholeheartedly support it as a public service. But if you think about it, it’s a little weird. I mean, this service is considered important enough to be publicly funded in a country that doesn’t even provide healthcare. And imagine if you did have a welfare state, but the way it worked was that doctors and nurses all had to earn their money from offering their services on a private healthcare basis while, at any time, anyone who couldn’t afford it or simply didn’t want to pay could go to a “public treatment centre” where the exact same doctors and nurses had to work whatever shifts were required, offering those same healthcare services, for no payment at all. In the UK, with PLR, this public service is recognised and recompensed, but not in the US. It’s taken for granted. And not only do we not complain; we celebrate the whole idea of libraries.

But the ultimate proviso we place on our offering this service is the limitation of copying. Just as we stipulate that on purchasing a ticket you are entering into an agreement not to rent it out without our license, we require that you do not copy it in order to sell the facsimiles and thereby provide unlimited service use to an unlimited number of service users. Only those who have paid us good money for the license to print tickets are allowed to do so, because we’ve entered into a very detailed agreement with them about what they can and can’t do, in order to ensure, as far as we can, that our toil is rewarded and our service provided on the best possible terms for all concerned. Again, this is nothing to do with “intellectual property”. Your copying is not “theft”, simply “conspiracy to defraud”. It is, in fact, counterfeiting or forgery. You are printing up a perfect replica of a coupon redeemable for ten quid’s worth of services, selling it on to someone for a fiver in the open acknowledgement that it is fake, and sitting back as they walk merrily up to our front door to obtain our service, provided at the expense of a whole lot of toil, under the false pretence of having paid for it. You may even just be giving your fake tickets away in exchange for fake tickets to other creators’ services provided by other users. This is pretty much the situation with torrenting sites, and it’s why they’re basically dodgy, the internet equivalent of a print shop set up only so that would-be fraudsters can conspire together and utilise its resources in their scheme.

This condition of service-provision — that users do not distribute unlicensed tickets — has become completely unenforceable, of course. And for the vast majority of users the ethical transgression is of such minimal import that they see no wrong in what they’re doing. Many of the more culturally savvy creators, in fact, consider this a sort of moral paradigm shift that simply necessitates finding some other way of making money from the provision of services. Pragmatically, they may have found that simply giving away tickets and inviting payment on an honour system is effective. I know it’s worked out for John Scalzi. I tried it out myself by posting up “Die! Vampire, Die!” as a free download under a Creative Commons license, adding that “Feed the Madman” Paypal button. I’m not going to tell you just how few payments I got cause it’s kind of depressing. You got to know how to do these things right and you might well simply need a large enough fanbase and wide enough exposure to make it work, but I clearly don’t, so it did fuck all for me. Simply giving away free tickets in one form but having “gold-plated” tickets that users can buy as an upgrade might also be effective. This is what Charlie Stross and Cory Doctorow have done, releasing free ebooks and finding that it increased sales of the hardcopy. Sometimes people just value the object because it gives them a proper sense of ownership, or because it comes in a nice package. Like you can download all the music you want, but you still kinda want the CD with its gorgeous design, its book of lyrics, all of that extra physicality. This is one reason I’m not really in that camp of fervent anti-piracy zealots. I’d be quite tempted to try out this strategy, see if works for me. I certainly do a fair bit in terms of giving away free tickets to other services (posting up free downloads) in the hope that it’ll bring in users willing to pay for the core services, the ones you have to buy the tickets for, in Borders or Barnes & Noble or, of course, direct from Monkeybrain. (*ahem*)

But at the end of the day, what we’re really dealing with is a situation where a whole lot of people are blasé about the intellectual service — the toil and the transfer. If we can get the latter for free we’re happy to do so and gloss over the fact of the former. We’re utterly complacent in our self-serving sense of entitlement, so used to being treated well by those who service us that we’ve come to simply take it for granted. That’s what they’re there for, isn’t it? They’re performers who want an audience, and if they provide us with this service, we provide them with that audience. That’s how you get to the stage where Masnick can make his gobsmacking assertions of his own entitlement. The whole notion of “intellectual property” bothers him, all this copyright malarky. He’s talking from a service user perspective who wants their ongoing fix of “new creative works”, a steady supply of tickets to every new service that comes along. He’s living in a world where you can get those tickets any time you want, where there’s a print-shop on every corner, open 24/7. He doesn’t really give a fuck about the toil that went into providing the service. And all those details that are printed on the ticket as a sort of contract? That little copyright notice that tells us who toiled? That price that tells us how much they want in return for using the service? The conditions of use that establish the forgery’s illegitimacy? The requirements for “credit, money or control”? Those are just nuisances that might interfere with his enjoyment of his steady supply if he paid them any attention. Fuck the principle of droit d’auteur. Fuck the creator themself.

Not that this is enough. Because he isn’t just out to circumvent the conditions under which the service is provided in order to ensure free use. This is the argument of the hack, who wants to be able to set themself up as a service provider on the same level but with as little toil as possible. It’s not piracy he’s out to justify but plagiarism. This is about using the ticket to gain access to the service, copying that service in part or as a whole and using whatever “service-building” tools might be available to produce a rip-off. It’s the argument of the hack because he’s not justifying this on the basis that the result would be worth it, that he’d putting sufficient toil into it that his own service would necessarily be treated with the same droit d’auteur. No, he’s denying that there’s any reason to recognise droit d’auteur at all. There is no toil to be recognised. He can’t even imagine creative work that’s anything other than exploitative and derivative. There is no “originality”, no “creation”, no “original creator”, only remixers reusing material snatched from here or there. You can’t accuse him of plagiarism cause we’re all just hacks recycling the work of previous generations. This is not even an Open Source ethos, where the contribution of individual originators is recognised implicitly, even where those originators share their work freely, asking nothing in return — other than perhaps the benefits to be gained from other originators sharing their own contributions. No, Masneck is denying that their contribution constitutes anything that can be described as “original”. And in doing so with specific reference to “intellectual property”, setting up his straw man argument that all creative work must surely transgress the boundaries of what’s acceptable, he’s basically trying to justify plagiarism on the basis that it’s all plagiarism.

“All works are built on those that came before. All works are inspired by and use bits and pieces of what they've learned or what they've seen, heard and felt.”

Either he doesn’t understand what plagiarism is at all, or he understands entirely and is cynically trying to obfuscate it in order to justify his disregard for droit d’auteur. He might even think he’s arguing from some woolly-minded ethical stance that “information is free”, shaded by misinformed notions of Open Source projects, Creative Commons licenses, new media business models and a hundred other principles, strategies and tactics that have evolved to deal with the paradigm shift which renders access to most creative services completely unrestrictable. He might be arguing from a mindset where “all the tickets are free” has been rationalised into a philosophy that “all the tickets should be free”. But he doesn’t understand what originality is, what the process of creation actually entails, and in denying that it can be worthy of recognition, denying that it can exist at all, he simply comes across as a self-serving hack, seeking to excuse that hackdom as What All Art Is. There’s no such thing as originality. No work is truly original.

This is a rather essentialist assertion that needs to be interrogated.

[Next: Originality and the Missing Shade of Blue]

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Creative Control - Part 2

The Cons of Copyright

There are problems with that system. When copyright can be owned by companies exploiting creators on a work-for-hire basis, you end up with companies like Disney who’ll pressure to keep Mickey Mouse in copyright by extending the period to an absurd degree. When it can be bought up by a company that exists solely to profit from such ownership, you end up with companies like the owners of “Run, Rabbit, Run” who’re basically exploiting the work of others to make easy money while making a reuse of the most negligible import all but impossible because they simply don’t give a fuck. When the automatic transfer to an estate leaves the copyright in the hands of individuals happy to ignore the original creator’s concerns, you end up with the family of Federico Garcia Lorca being too restrictive, exerting a deeply dubious editorial hand with poetry that — shock, horror — deals with homosexuality. Or you end up with the estate of Robert Zelazny not being restrictive enough, allowing Amber books to be written when Zelazny himself expressly stated he didn’t want this.

Personally, I think a shake-up to copyright legislation would be no bad thing. For a start, we could put the rights into the public domain upon the creator’s death unless expressly passed on in a will. A creator has the right, I’d say, to ensure that their loved ones enjoy the benefits of their legacy for a reasonable period, but they have to exercise that right. And actually, I’d bring in an “invalidation of contract” provision. Which is to say that any executor of an estate acting in contravention of the express wishes of the original creator is in breach of an implicit contract entered into in their acceptance of the copyright as part of their inheritance. In such cases, they have abrogated their responsibilities and thus the rights that go with them. You could require such a suit to be brought by a complainant with a relationship that validates a claim to succession as executor. You could define what legitimises such a claim in all sorts of interesting ways, if you want to. A lover or a long-term friend and fellow writer might well be more likely to treat a gay writer’s poetry with more respect than immediate relatives whose concern for his “good name” is really a concern for their own. Or you could push the envelope further and allow anyone to bring such a suit, on the principle that, if it’s upheld, the copyright enters the public domain. Personally, in the case of derivative works — unsanctioned sequels and prequels, spin-offs and cash-ins — where the production of these is deemed the definitive action which invalidates the contract, I’d even transfer the copyright for these to the public domain. Sorry, mate. You piss on the creator’s grave, you abrogate any creative rights associated with that action.

Work-for-hire and corporate ownership are gnarlier issues, perhaps. I don’t see any good reason why a copyright transferred by purchase should last longer than a copyright transferred by inheritance, and I’d love to see Disney shitting bricks if that period was set at 50 years, say. It would seem only fair to have rights then reverting to the creator, if they’re still alive, or to an executor explicitly nominated in the creator’s will. But in the case of purchase the contract is explicit, not implicit, and its terms are likely to be pretty absolute. Where the transfer of copyright takes place as a cash transaction, that’s pretty much going to render any claim of abrogated responsibilities unsustainable, because the buyer’s only responsibility is to follow the terms written into that contract. Other than that the creator gave up any say on what could be done with their work when they signed on the dotted line. It’s the sort of situation you get in the comics industry, in programming, or in the entertainment industry, of course, with cut-throat corporate bastards like Disney, and as unpalatable as it is to see creators exploited, you either have to disallow such contracts as inherently inequitous or, well, suck it up. The inequity can be and is addressed with the sort of legislation that gave the estates of Siegel and Shuster a form of co-ownership of Superman with DC Comics. It would be nice, I think, to see this right to terminate the assignment of copyright extended, in whatever modified form was necessary, to the creators of some of the more recent seminal works in the same industry — Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. But ultimately this seems to me to be about contracts rather than copyright itself, about what can be done, if anything, to redress exploitation when it’s the spirit of the law that’s been breached rather than the letter.

Whatever reconstruction of copyright legislation might be in order though, we are not dealing with the wildly unrealistic “problem” painted by Masnick. It is not, I’d say, even a remotely plausible scenario of how things might be if the copyright system ran amok!!! He’s saying that “no new creative works could be done without getting permission.” None. Not a single one. This would require that every single work that could be done, theoretically speaking, must be of such a nature that someone, somewhere could challenge it on grounds of copyright infringement. This is a statement about the essential nature of all works of art, that they are all necessarily contestable, because this is how art is made. What Masnick spectacularly fails to see is that even if this were true, even if copyright legislation became so wildly draconian, in the cloud-cuckoo-land of an imagined future, as to render all new creative work open to challenge, all those existing in-copyright works they were purportedly plagiarising would be themselves contestable. Any system sufficiently onerous that all new works were by nature transgressions would be sufficiently onerous that all old ones would be similarly in breach of its rules. If the “problem” was really a matter of some errant pretence “that there is a true original creator who deserves credit, money or control” and all those pretenders-to-originality had a legal system by which they could actually, realistically challenge any new work that could conceivably be produced, their own works would be equally susceptible to such challenges. All but the very oldest works still in copyright — which is to say, those works right on the verge of going out of copyright anyway — could be contested by the rights-holder of some earlier work.

Is it possible perhaps, just maybe, that this is why plagiarism is defined in very strict terms so as to only cover the sort of copying that actually fucking matters? Could it be that the legislation deliberately sets clear limits on what is open to challenge and what is not in order to reflect the reality — that the overwhelming majority of creative works, if they exploit the work of others at all, do so in a manner that is acceptable, but that a tiny minority of not-very-fucking-creative-at-all works are exploiting the work of others in a manner that is simply not acceptable? Could it be that the legislation is actually setting the definition of what constitutes an “original” work, as far as the law is concerned, in its identification of a few very specific features by which a work can be deemed criminally lacking in this “originality”? It doesn’t seem too wild and wacky an idea to me that even if all creative works could, theoretically speaking, be considered “derivative” in some shape or form, the purpose of copyright legislation is to allow for legal action in the subset of cases — and only in the subset of cases — where they are exploiting another’s labour without capital recompense.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Maybe we’re all “standing on the shoulders of giants,” but maybe sometimes it’s simply wrong. Mostly it means jumping from one shoulder to another, this giant to the next, learning to see the world from their perspective until you can stand tall yourself and maybe, hopefully, one day be the giant whose shoulders a later generation stand on. Nothing wrong with that. Standing on the shoulders of a few particular giants for a good long while though, because you want to really understand their view, and doing so without giving them credit, (like if I didn’t acknowledge my debts to Aeschylus, Euripedes, Virgil and their translators,) that’s just bad form. It’s not illegal but it’s bad form. Standing on the shoulders of living giants like that, sneakily having them carry you somewhere without their permission, (like if I simply reused verbatim some modern translation of Inanna’s Descent,) that’s just plain wrong. At very short distances, if you have a very good reason for it, and due credit is given, it’s fair enough, (which is why it’s called “fair use” or “fair dealing”,) but otherwise you need to ask, and that giant is quite entitled to refuse outright or set conditions and require recompense. Standing on the shoulders of dead giants and being carried like that when the wake is barely over and that giant is in the hearse of culture-at-large on their last great journey to the graveyard? (Like if I reused Gardner’s Gilgamesh verbatim in the next book?) Well, it’s possible that giant wouldn’t object but it’s just as possible they’d rule it out of the question, or would want their next-of-kin to have the final say, the power to deal or veto. And if you really respect that giant then you should respect their wishes.

The idea that all of these permutations of “standing on the shoulders of giants” are rendered acceptable or unacceptable in law in the name of progess, the idea that it’s all some sort of strategy for encouraging individual creators to continue striving to stand tall as giants, an attempt to prevent them from just sitting down and letting their legs atrophy because there’s no guarantee of a nod, a tip or even a polite request for consent when others decide they want to stand on your shoulders — this is wrong both practically and in principle. The creators are going to carry on striving to be giants regardless. They don’t need encouragement cause they get it in the rush of suddenly seeing the world from a new perspective, whether it’s because they’re standing on the shoulders of giants or because they’ve learned how to stand just that little bit taller themselves. They will strive for years — for decades — with no reward whatsoever and no expectation of reward because there is never any guarantee that they will become that giant or, even if they do, that they will be recognised as such. They’ll strive against the skepticism of those who think you’re somehow born a giant and who, looking at this would-be creator, see only a piddling little hobbyist, born to be the height they are. They’ll strive against scorn and condescension, disapproval and doubt, their own as much as anyone else’s, continuing even as they grow taller and taller because the change is so gradual — and they only really stand tall when they’re alone anyway, in those unseen paintings or unread manuscripts — that it may well be that nobody notices. They’ll strive against the problem of finding the time and energy to strive when you have to earn a living. They’ll strive because they’re addicted to the striving, because the striving itself is really sort of the point, this insatiable drive to figurate. It’s not really that they want to be a giant. They just want to stand tall so they can see a little better. It’s the difference between wanting to be an artist, to have made art, and wanting to make it. At the end of the day, the encouragements and discouragements will have an effect but the incentive of copyright is not really of much import to the majority of creators who’re never going to be successful at all, never mind successful enough to be plagiarised. That’s what makes the whole “progress” idea wrong on a practical level. But simply on principle, in terms of ethics, it’s just completely bogus. Because they’re striving towards this point where maybe one day the rest of us will stand on their shoulders and be carried by them and have a hell of a time, and that’s a form of labour that we owe them for.

The way to think of copyright is not “intellectual property” but “intellectual service”. A work of art is not just a product; it’s a two-fold process of toil and transfer. All those copyrighted structurings of sounds and images — it’s not that the creator owns some abstract information-pattern, some insubstantial Platonic form floating out there in the morphological aether until the creator came along, pulled it out of thin air, and by making it manifest in the medium of their choice established their ownership of the very order encoded in this specific articulation, their ownership of every particularity of that articulation, from the low-level structures of musical or linguistic phrases to the higher-level structures of characters described in literature or represented in cinema. You can’t “own” an idea, but the distinction between idea and expression in copyright does not really mean that you can “own” an expression either. The legislation might word it in such terms but it’s like legislating ownership of numbers, like saying that whoever comes up with the most precise calculation of pi owns that particular expression of it. It’s not really meaningful to say that I own this articulation that you happen to be reading right now when it is — if it constitutes a “thing” at all — in some abstract sense, as much in your head as you read it as it is in mine as I write, as much as it is on the screen of my laptop in a document still incomplete, as much as it is on the screen of your computer in an internet browser showing a blog entry finished and published for anyone to read. Ownership is a poor concept when it comes to articulations of ideas.

But this is because articulations are processes rather than just products. Experiencing a work of art conveys that articulation into your imagination, or through it at least, idea and expression in one big package. The entirety of the articulation carries out a procedure — quite different, in all likelihood, for each reader or viewer or listener. It performs a function of figuration, each structuring of sound or image being parsed and recombined — sparking off imagination and ideation at every turn, at every level — until the process is completed, as on the last page of a book, or abandoned, as when a viewer turns away from a painting. It’s this experience that we value, not the work as a mere product, an inactive object. The object itself — book, print, disc or file — is just the means by which the transfer is made possible, and buying, borrowing or stealing a copy of it from whatever source is of zero import if no subsequent transfer takes place. Whether the copy is legitimate or not, it simply doesn’t matter if it is never used. It’s the transfer you’re paying for, if you’re paying at all, the service provided by the creator in making it available to you. You’re also paying for the toil required to set that service up in the first place, because the provision of that transfer is not without effort. That service actually working in a way that’s of value is dependent on the hard graft of the brickie, the skilled craft of the joiner, the precise design of the architect and quite possibly the apparently crack-pot vision of a mad scientist who’s used himself as the test subject in ten years of experiments with extreme living conditions in an obsessive attempt to understand the importance of houses in people’s lives — how they succeed, how they fail, how they might go horribly wrong in a Demon Seed sort of way and completely fuck with their inhabitants. That’s the sort of toil that may well have gone into this house you’ve rented for a weekend for a holiday.

[Next: I Got a Golden Ticket!]

Monday, February 23, 2009

Creative Control - Part 1

Horseshit Hirst and the Remix Generation

On a list group thingy I’m on another writer posted a link to this article on how there ain’t no such thing as original content creation, wherein the writer takes issue with the idea they find aticulated in this review, the misguided notion “that allowing others to remix content without getting permission potentially harms the "original creator." ” Nay, says Mike Masnick. Nay, nay and thrice nay! This is a myth!

Not that he’s actually tackling the real copyright issues he could be dealing with here, like the inequity of a system by which (as I learned from John Coulthart just the other day) the British art coterie’s most vacuous wank of a shuckster, Damien Hirst, can pull a MacDonalds on a young graffiti artist, Cartrain, who used an image of his crystal skull in a collage, this whorseon hustler Hurst having the fucking gall to demand £200 compensation and impound the works of an artist working in a medium that actually has some real fucking artistic balls in comparison to Hurst’s Saatchisuckling, cocktail-clique-pandering horseshit. And to do so when, to top it all, there’s a rather compelling allegation that Horseshit Hirst himself nicked the fucking idea in the first place. There’s a real issue in there to be addressed, I’d say. If “fair use” allows for a certain amount of quotation to be used in critique, surely we might argue that Cartrain’s collage is a form of critique that, as a 2D photographic image rather than a 3D replica, utilises only a part of Horsehit Hirst’s blingwankery and does so in order to embed it in a larger and substantially original work that comments on it. Homage, parody, pastiche or satire — Cartrain’s collage is, I’d say, just as valid as Bored of the Rings or any number of French & Saunders sketches spoofing Hollywood cinema. We’re living in an era of collage. We’re a remix generation, reusing and rearranging.

And Horseshit Hirst’s hypocrisy is, as Coulthart points out, demonstrated in other instances, with Hirst accused of copying anatomy set models and geometric patterns created by designers, ready to deny them credit never mind compensation if at all possible. He is himself part of the remix generation. Hell, the constant incorporation of everyday objects, found art, that began with one urinal has permeated conceptual art to the point where it’s astounding that the critics still see something innovative in this. More astounding still that the cocktail clique value Horseshit Hirst’s vacuous nothings over remixing that really actually mixes it up. Cartrain samples Hirst’s work to incorporate it in his own multi-component collage. Horseshit Hirst simply scales up the anatomy model, paints the dots in the geometric pattern different colours. Wow.

Man, if I were the judge in that case I’d get a breakdown of every fucking asset Hirst had in his name, liquid or material, add them up, times it by ten and award that to the plaintiff. Horsehit Hirst could go sell his arse in Soho to survive, cause that’s all he’s fucking good for.

But Masnick isn’t interested in where remixes might introduce originality in the mere act of arrangement. He doesn’t question the true “potentiality” of Cartrain’s collage “harming” Hirst’s, doesn’t interrogate whether there’s a credible claim of damage to his livelihood, how far a derivative work might or might not affect the original works reputation by association, whether that damage might be entirely fair game just as a critical savaging by means of parody or non-fiction hatchet job is held to be. He doesn’t address the virtual impossibility of actually getting permission in many instances where it’s just plain ludicrous to deny it. Do you have any idea how hard it is to get permission to use one fucking line of the song “Run, Rabbit, Run” in a novel, the copyright to the lyrics not even owned by its original wartime lyricist or even his estate, but held by some moneygrubbing company that exists solely to capitalise on it? They’re not going to charge you for it. They’re just not going to fucking answer you. So trust me, there’s a whole lot to say, as far as I’m concerned, about the idea that we just plain shouldn’t allow others to remix content without permission because it potentially harms the original creator. But this is not what Masnick addresses. He just says there is no original creator:

“This is a myth that is all too often found in IP law -- both in patents and in copyrights. This concept of the "original creator" of a piece of work. All works are built on those that came before. All works are inspired by and use bits and pieces of what they've learned or what they've seen, heard and felt. Pretending that there is a true original creator who deserves credit, money or control is a problem -- because it means no new creative works could be done without getting permission. That would be a tremendous hindrance on creation -- rather than progress (as the Constitution intends).”

As I’ve said, we’re living in the remix generation, but there’s so much of the wrong in this paragraph I barely know where to start. Let’s start with the end then, cause it lets me get shouty.

On Serfs and Samples

“That would be a tremendous hindrance on creation -- rather than progress (as the Constitution intends).”

Shut the fuck up about your fucking shitrag fucking Consti-fucking-tution. I don’t give a fuck for it and all your bullshit Americanist pseudo-Enlightenment rhetoric of progress. Take that shitrag, take your flag, take your lip-service to freedom and democracy too, roll it all up into one Jeff Stryker sized dildo of a bundle and shove it where the sun don’t shine and where you’re talking out of. Do I care what the Constitution intends? Do I care what your 18th Century knock-off of the Declaration of Arbroath had to say about art in an era before mass-production, global capitalism and American corporate imperialism? Do I buy into its denial of the principle of droit d’auteur which the courts in civilised countries base their copyright legislation on? No. Your appeal to the authority of the Holy Holy Fucking Holiest of Holies Hallowed Be Thy Name on the Dotted Line Constitution holds zero weight with me. Zero. Cause this US notion that copyright is about patting creators on the back so they’ll keep on with the work they’re doing… this is basically akin to an argument that you have to feed your indentured serfs because it makes them less likely to run away. Not because you owe them food for their toil but because it’ll negatively affect productivity. Bollocks to that, mate. I am not society’s fucking indentured serf and copyright is not a scrap I’m thrown from the master’s table just so I’ll be a good lackey and keep on at the toil. If you value work you can damn well recognise the rights of the worker.

Progress? Christ, I know you get brainwashed into believing a whole lot of bullshit, the Romantic rhetoric of the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave, but give us a fucking break already. Your nation was built on slavery. That was fucking “progress”. Was that “intended” by the Constitution? If we get more “progress” by allowing one man with privilege and power to ruthlessly exploit the unrecompensed toil of a hundred others, is that A-OK because we don’t want to place a “tremendous hindrance” on his capacity to do so? Because those plantation owners are building a new nation, taming the wilderness, and it’s all in the name of “progress”? No? Then shut the fuck up with this empty rhetoric of freedom which simply translates to the freedom to exploit, and let’s got down to business.


“Pretending that there is a true original creator who deserves credit, money or control is a problem -- because it means no new creative works could be done without getting permission.”

Wrong and wrong and wrong again. A little less wrong on the last count, maybe, but completely wrong on the other two. Actually those two halves of the sentence don’t relate at all, as simply accepting intellectually that an original creator “deserves” something in terms of recognition of their role in production, recompense for said production or regulatory power over production is not the same thing as legislating that acceptance into practical measures. But let’s assume that by “pretending” you mean “recognising in law”. So how does recognising the creator’s right to these three privileges affect the creation of new works? Does it really mean that none could be created at all without getting permission? None? This is just so absurd it’s risible. I’d point to the millions of works that simply aren’t derivative, that simply don’t sample at all from a source work, as examples which could be done without getting permission simply because there’s no one to get permission from, but this assertion is born of the crucial logic leap we haven’t dealt with yet — the idea, at the heart of the article, that all works are derivative — so I’ll come back to that. Instead I’ll simply point to works like Joyce’s Ulysses which do base themselves closely on a source work but with which there’s no need to get permission because the original creator is long dead, their work long-since passed into the public domain. You want to do a remix of Euripedes’ The Bacchae, rewrite it as a Harlequin play featuring your own personal cast of archetypal players? You don’t need to dig up Euripedes, tip your hat to him, bung a fiver in his hand and offer him editorial oversight on your crazy cubist fantasy novel. All of those privileges are time-limited, mate. Even if collage is your thing, there’s a whole lot of material in the public domain. Millennia of it. Samples? Man, I use the entire text of The Bacchae as a backbeat in INK.

But what about remixing more recent works? If you want to use a line from “Run, Rabbit, Run” in a novel, for example, what strictures does it’s being in copyright place on you. Does it mean you just can’t write your novel at all. Let’s take these privileges one by one. Credit doesn’t change anything. Requiring attribution of a source means just that — requiring attribution. If the law simply said that I had to include an acknowledgement of the lyricist’s copyright on the same page as my own, I’d have been a happy puppy. And frankly, it’s hardly a fucking draconian imposition to expect one writer to have the fucking decency to acknowledge their debt to another, where they’re directly sampling someone else’s work. It’s called integrity. Money doesn’t actually change anything either, you know. This song lyric is a very good example, actually, cause having suffered the wild goose chase of trying to get permission to use “Run, Rabbit, Run” and having joined PRS and MCPS as a songwriter as the easiest way to gather royalties for the lyrics to “If You Love Me You’d Destroy Me”, I now know how automated it can be in the right circumstances. If you write a song, you don’t get your royalties direct from the label. You register at these bodies and they sort it all out for you. CD sales, airplay, use on adverts, being played at night-clubs, live performance — all of these potential usages you can give blanket licences to (and probably would in general, except maybe for adverts, if you don’t wnat your song used to sell shit as shinola). Anybody wants to use your song on radio, on a soundtrack to a TV programme, or wherever, all they need do in most cases is go on a website and chuck some pennies at it for a license. It’s not onerous, it’s not expensive and it’s not contingent on the musician’s permission. Most likely they’ve already given it. Had there simply been an option for “quote lyrics in novel” I could have chucked those few pennies in and used “Run, Rabbit, Run” no problem. Which brings us to the third privilege: control. The only stricture that actually affects the creation of derivative works. The only one that actually necessitates getting permission. Which I can say with some muttered discontent over my personal experience of singularly failing to be able to navigate passage through a licensing system not set up to automate control as regards the quotation of song lyrics in a work of fiction. With a non-standard usage request that had to be sent by direct email to a faceless company with no apparent interest in responding, in the end I had to admit defeat and play it safe by writing a surrogate snatch of song.

But that’s the thing. This terrible stricture didn’t bring the whole project crashing down around me in flames. Did I throw my hands up in despair? Did I cry out to the gods of copyright, “Why hast thou forshafted me?! Verily all I want is to do my new creative work, and lo, this work can not now be done for it requires getting permission that I can not get! Damn this pretence that there’s an original creator who deserves credit, money or control!”?


No, I simply wrote something else that didn’t require getting permission. It may sound like a staggering concept, but actually it’s not that difficult. Writers do it every fucking day, mate. Novels, novellas, short stories, plays, poems, songs and fucking all-out musical spectacular spectaculars. It’s not fucking hard to do your “new creative works” without getting permission because requirements to give credit, cash or control to the original creator hardly fucking restrict you if you are the original creator. Do I give permission to myself to use this line of this song I’ve just made up, in this novel I’m writing? Hmm, let me think about it and get back to me. See, as far as the law is concerned with respect to these privileges, if you create something original then you’re its original creator. In fact, your work doesn’t even have to be wildly different to be considered your original creation by dint of the fact that you fucking created it. You want a surrogate song to replace “Run, Rabbit, Run”? Well, you can even model yours so closely on that song that the reference is obvious — the same rhythm, the same basic sense in the lyrics, (hey little bunny rabbit, you better scoot toot-sweet, cause the farmers on his way with his gun,) and so on. Plagiarism is pretty strictly defined. The degree to which one work has to, without permission, copy the specific detail of another — rather than just bear a resemblance born of inspiration and/or shared intent — in order to constitute a breach of copyright, is pretty strictly defined. And anything which doesn’t fit that definition… that’s original.

Masneck’s core thesis is a straw man. Hell, it’s a twenty foot tall straw man, on fire, with Edward Woodward trapped inside, shouting, “Oh, Jesus Christ! Oh, Jesus Christ!” Pretending that there is a true original creator who deserves credit, money or control is a problem? Because it means no new creative works could be done without getting permission? This is just patently not how it works. We do accept in law that there’s a true original creator. We do accept that they deserve credit, money and control. We do even have it written into laws that limit one creator’s ability to reuse another’s work without permission. None of this prevents new creative work being done. In fact, it pretty much defines what “new creative work” is in direct contrast to derivative work and gives us carte blanche with the former. Not only that, it doesn’t rule out the latter, just requires us to gain consent in that fraction of the cases where the source work is not in the public domain. Other than that small fraction of works still under copyright, the whole history of literature is open to us, from Glgamesh on. The whole history of art is open to us, from the cave-paintings of Lascaux on. Use this to your heart’s consent, the law tells us. All of this is yours now. It belongs to your generation. We only require, legally speaking, that credit, money or control in the case of living creators or the inheritors of their estate for a set period of time after that creator’s death. We think that’s a just reward for that creator’s contribution to our culture.

[Next: The Cons of Copyright; Standing on the Shoulders of Giants]