Saturday, October 13, 2007

Copyright, Derivative Work, Influences

When I started this blog, I promised the occasional rant, and I'm not sure I've made good on that promise yet. Today's post may come close to a rant, although only a mild one. It's triggered by two events: a piece on the program of the Spokane Symphony's season opener last month, and a post on The Ragged Cloth Cafe blog. Both beg the question of when is a work derivative, and why it appears ok for some artists to "copy" another artist's work or style.

I admit I'm a bit touchy about the issue of copyright as it has invaded the quilting world. Copyright is not a big part of quilting's tradition. Quilter's are better known for sharing, copying another's work partly out of admiration, freely using the wealth of block patterns and applique motifs passed through many generations of quilters, being inspired by someone else's idea and racing home to run with it. It was all so innocuous until big money and careers were suddenly at stake. This is not to say that I deny all claims of copyright a modern quilter may make. I only state this to show how the culture of quilting has changed the last 20 or so years, and to note how it has cast a certain pall and uneasiness over a number of quilters. The are still those quilters oblivious to copyright issues, but there are many more that now fear that anything they do might infringe if it ends up as a raffle quilt or gets entered into a show with cash prizes. We no longer can show our admiration of a pattern or a teacher through emulation without wondering if we are crossing a line that will get us sued. Many of us are genuinely confused, and some of the joy has been taken out of our craft. (This is the mild rant part - full of generalizations and simplification of a very complex issue.)

If it's not out and out copyright to be worried about, then the next fear that has been pounded into us it that of producing derivative work. How much do we need to tweak an idea to make it our own? How do we defend ourselves when we discover that what we thought was oh so original on our part has already been done by someone else? This is where the post on The Ragged Cloth Cafe comes in. Clairan Ferrono's post "A Question of Originality" compares similar work by different artists, and the surprise on each is that the least well known of each pair being compared was actually the earlier one to produce that work. This really struck a chord with me.

And then, I went to the symphony and listened to Maurice Ravel's Piano Concerto in G Major. The program notes revealed that Ravel had become interested in American jazz, admired George Gershwin a great deal, and this piece displayed signs of this newfound interest. "...the tempo slows to a bluesy mood, with wailing clarinet and muted trumpet melodies that George Gershwin might have penned." And as I listened, eyes closed, indeed, when that portion was played, it sounded to my ear exactly like a Gershwin piece. Huh, I thought. How'd he get away with that?

It's impossible not to be influenced by what is around us. Alyson Stanfield notes in her Art Biz blog here: "Don't be afraid of being influenced by others. Be afraid of being ignorant of them." And I would add, eventually, you have to put your own spin on whatever is influencing you to make it truly your own, and not derivative. Then, hopefully, when you put that work out there, you won't have to fear copyright infringement or accusations of being less than original in your vision.


Anonymous said...

I happen to be a copyright expert. Ask me anything.

Ideas are not copyrightable. Nor are styles. Copyright ingringement is passing another's work, imagination, creation, etc., as one's own. You can lift a line of a song as long as you don't try to make the listener think that the orginal songwriter wrote your song.

Actual images and recordings are another matter--there the copyright resides in the tangible thing itself. You can't sopy that.

But you could make a quilt much like an Ansel Adams photo, for instance, as long as you don't refer to Adams, B&W photography, Yosemite, etc., in a way that makes the viewer think that somehow Adams is involved with the quilt.

To put it another way: Ansel Adams can't own the view of Half-Dome--but he owns the image he took, and processed, and marketed, etc. If you are trying to make money off of his work, you're infringing. If you're showing Half-Dome, you're fine.

The Idaho Beauty said...

I can hardly ask you anything if you are anonymous. If you're an expert, I'd love to know who you are and how you can be contacted.

I've read a lot on copyright issues, by the way, and especially on copyright as it pertains to quilting in particular. I don't think it's quite as simple as you imply. If it were, the courts would not be hearing some of the cases they are right now. IMO of course.

But thanks for giving the info that you did. I readily admitted that I was being a bit broad and general and ranty in this post. Feeling for the grannies out there that have been blind-sided by this lately.

I hope you took the time to follow the link to the Ragged Cloth Cafe post.