Appropriation, Fair Use, Theft

We live in an age of appropriation. Movies are often remakes of earlier movies or television shows. Old television shows get remade. Songs get sampled in other songs. And other people’s art often shows up as part of other works of art.

A case involving Richard Prince, who often appropriates art, is roiling the world of galleries and auction houses.  When is something “fair use”? That is, when can it be used in another work, and when is it theft?

Artists have always appropriated. Dante took from Vergil. Shakespeare took from many sources. Picasso used other people’s images. All of these artists transformed what they took into something wholly their own.

What the Richard Prince trial highlights is the work of an artist who’s more, as the article says, “art director” than artist – he makes money from work other people have done. Mr. Prince’s use of photographs from a book about Rastafarians for a collage series of his that sold extremely well (one fetched $2.5 million) was, in March, ruled by a Manhattan judge to theft. Mr. Prince is appealing the ruling.

For today’s generation, according to Stephen Frailey, an artist quoted in the article, “everything is raw material” on the Internet, which is regarded as a “collaborative community.”

Well, there’s collaboration and there’s just taking.

What about when a writer appropriates something, something often called plagiarism? Is it fair use, or is it simply stealing? Assassin of Secrets, published by Little, Brown & Co., was pulled from stores earlier this year after pseudonymous author QR Markham (real name: Quentin Rowan) was found to have lifted entire passages from several books, including Robert Ludlum works and a James Bond novel by John Gardner. The author admitted to having taken the passages because he was under such a strict deadline, and because he was addicted to plagiarism. But looking at his novel another way, it was something new made up of old parts, wasn’t it? Isn’t that what appropriation is?

I’m not advocating for plagiarism at all. But when is plagiarism just that and when is it something else? Writers have often used an earlier work as inspiration, as the bestselling crime novelist P.D. James does in her highly regarded new work Death Comes to Pemberley, which follows the beloved characters from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice several years after the close of that classic, as they confront a murder. A clever idea (and better executed than many novels that employ famous authors as sleuths), this is real appropriation. It’s a matter of transparency. Plagiarism is trying to hide what you’ve taken and pretend it’s yours. Appropriation is nodding to another work and creating something of your own.

And if you’re starting out on your own writing project, and using your platform to build your audience and spread your ideas you should rely on the power of your audience to tell you where you’re going. Not that you’ll resort to lifting other people’s works. But your readers will offer you guidance by telling you where you’re hitting home and where you’re going astray, and they’ll even provide ideas for you to work on, on your own. Their comments aid your work – and that’s a real collaborative community, too.

Bob Hughes
Author: Bob Hughes
Robert J. Hughes ("Bob") was a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal for over a decade, specializing in culture reporting. He was the paper's theater reporter, wrote on publishing, the art and auction markets, television, music, film and philanthropy, and reviewed books.
  • http://www.facebook.com/MyJobIsMom Kirsten Nelson

    When I was in college, I had a professor who put the fear of God in me regarding plagiarism. It’s been very interesting to see how the internet has affected writing. Great distinction on the differences between plagiarism and appropriation! Thanks!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=582190671 Aldous Irving Jimenez-Echegoye

    Thanks for clearing that up Bob.  You have really made your point here.  When I started being a corporate trainer I was worried about this same thing because, at some point, I know that I will be using what I have learned from others or the internet aside from my own experience (of course where else can I get information but from others if not my experience).  A trainer/coach friend of mine told me that as long as I create one that is mine, even if it’s a mixture of all the information I have gathered in the past then that is not theft.  I never had problems when I followed that rule.

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