Going away for college is scary enough, but my sheltered home and community, made going to NYC for college absolutely nerve racking. You just don’t find the kind of friendliness and homeliness in the city as you do in Clinton. Regardless to say, after three months away from home, I was ecstatic to return for Thanksgiving break and see my family.
Soon after arriving, I saw my Mom’s new real estate office building for the first time. My eyes were immediately drawn towards the amazing new logo embossed on the door and windows. The ELC combined with the subtle G and Z along with the sophisticated color palette formed a truly original piece of work. Looking at my face for approval, my Mom asked me what I thought about it. To her chagrin, my immediate response was “did you buy the copyright from the artist?”
My question highlights an important issue that I feel like we as a community too often overlook. Living in a small town definitely has its perks, but there is an inherent community of trust that is not always necessarily good. The local camaraderie spirit makes it easy for us to take the word of our neighbors at face value and naively believe in the good of a person. Inevitably, someone will eventually violate this system of trust, and only then will we realize what we should have been concerned about this whole time.
People often draw upon the ideas of others. Influenced by the works or art forms of others, many artists are able to create something of their own. However, this raises issues about the distinction between inspiration and copyright. Current copyright laws fail to draw a clear line between copying and influence. This ambiguity threatens every realm of the creative world. Imagine a world in which there were a fear to create. Life as we know it would be very different if this were the case. From town landmarks to secret family recipes, creative collaboration and influence permeate the air. The scope of the issue lends importance to the question: where does artistic influence end and copyright infringement begin?
Editor Laurie Stearns made one of the most important claims on the distinction between plagiarism and influence when she outlined a distinct justification for plagiarism in her article titled Copy Wrong. Stearns establishes that “imitation is an inevitable component of creation” but “plagiarists pass beyond the boundaries of acceptable imitation by copying from the work of others without improving on the copied material or fully assimilating it into their own work”.
We must be careful to remember these cases in which artists can copy another’s work as long as they are making it their own.
Novelist Jonathan Lethem adds another justification for plagiarism by arguing that new ideas are derived from preexisting entities:
“Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos. Any artist knows these truths, no matter how deeply he or she submerges that knowing”.
Thus, all invention comes from inspiration. This argument is similar to the one presented by Stearns: creation comes from imitation. A creator may deny that there is any subconscious memory of influence, but in the end everything created comes from the trail of some preexisting idea. You are changing the idea slightly because you are representing it in the way you remember it, but the idea was still from someone else. If the pre-existing copyright laws were to remain, there is no distinct way to separate influence from stealing. Every individual case would be discretionary and this is not fair to either side. Consequently, this distinction must be streamlined.
Think about our beautiful “Milling Around” piece located downtown. Artist Heidi Lippman marked the inspiration of her work as an old abandoned millstone located downtown. If someone had decided this historical site were a work of art, there is a potential that that inspiration could be labeled copying. Would we have ended up with such an amazing piece if Lippman was afraid her creation’s influence could land in a copyright lawsuit?
Probably not. We must work together to help everyone understand the importance of clear copyright laws so that our artists are able to do what they love without the looming threat of a lawsuit. Creating and sharing work is hard enough for artists without the added fear of having their creative process questioned.
Copyright laws may seem irrelevant to those of us living in Clinton because of the trust fostered within our community, but the necessity in clearing up the distinction between what is copying and what is inspiration is important. Unless we pay attention to it now, our failure to clarify this issue will one day sneak up on us.
Leah Zeng is a freshman at Columbia University: born and raised in Clinton, NC. During her first semester, Leah participated in a University Writing class that included a unit on the conversation surrounding copyright issues and prompted this response.