<p>If copying helps breed innovation, how should we treat works of plagiarism and the modern “remix” phenomena?</p>
Kirby Ferguson, writer and director of the brilliant cultural documentary series Everything Is A Remix (and who spoke at our inaugural Creators Project meetup on Free Culture back in April), just released the third installment of his remix chronicling doc: “Part 3: The Elements of Creativity.” The video deconstructs the components of invention and innovation, dethroning the age-old “creation myth” of creativity as something that comes from “divine inspiration” or singular genius, and demonstrating that “new ideas” are really the product of a much slower, building block-like process that begins with copying, moves on to transformation, and thrives through creative combination.
Creativity isn't magic: it happens by applying ordinary tools of thought to existing materials. And the soil from which we grow our creations is something we scorn and misunderstand even though it gives us so much — and that's… copying. – Kirby Ferguson
The video comes at an interesting time for us since, just last week, we conducted a Skype interview with a creative duo in Japan called Kagemu, who have been emailing us regarding an interview we posted last month with Kenzo Digital on the visuals he helped create for Beyonce’s Billboard Awards performance. What was, by all accounts, a truly spectacular performance incorporating bold projection visuals that synced perfectly with Beyonce’s powerful choreography became entangled in a nasty copyright debate. Beyonce and her team were accused of copying a performance by an Italian pop singer named Lorella Cuccarini (though both Beyonce and Kenzo openly referenced the pop singer as an inspiration during interviews). But then, to complicate matters further, it was revealed that Cuccarini herself copied her visuals from Kagemu’s Black Sun performance, released a year prior. Right down to using the exact same music in parts. The group was now crusading for acknowledgment and recognition of what they believed was their original concept. Oh, what a tangled, sampled web…
Put simply, copying is how we learn. We can’t introduce anything new until we are fluent in the language of our domain, and we do that through emulation. – Kirby Ferguson
All finger pointing aside, this scenario encapsulates a growing problem facing modern creatives and the works they produce. With information being spread at break-neck speed, influences have the potential to reach global audiences virtually overnight and are being incorporated into new works faster than ever before. This vast globalization of information and creative output is generally heralded as a good thing, with many championing the “democratizing power of digital media,” but it does beg the question—in “the age of the remix,” what exactly constitutes an act of plagiarism and what a "sample" or an adaptation? How can artists protect their work from being ripped off while still making it widely available online? It's tricky business, and no one seems to have a definitive answer.
In the case of these three audiovisual works, it's true that the performances all have several components and conceptual elements in common—the wall-breaking scene, the upside-down doppelgängers, the bird motifs, etc.—but taken as a whole, it's difficult to deem either of the subsequent interpretations as a full-out copy. Each one significantly modifies and builds upon the visual design put forth by their predecessors. And it could be argued that, as artists clumsily experiment with this still relatively new fusion of projection visuals and choreography, certain foundational building blocks will be forged, only to be reused, remixed and repurposed by future artists.
But how similar is too similar? We'll leave that question to the law makers.
This ordeal is emblematic of a pervasive issue that is plaguing creatives of our generation—as we’ve seen from several highly publicized incidents involving prominent artists like Shepard Fairey and Richard Prince. If nothing else, this particular instance helped propel an obscure Japanese group into relative prominence, and Kagemu themselves, despite seeking justice in the form of proper acknowledgement and attribution, concede that the whole thing is pretty incredible.
“We’re thrilled that some of the concept and artistic power of our work has somehow traveled such a long distance and took some kind of new root in Beyonce’s performance,” they told us during our Skype chat.
Regardless of whatever creative elements were unjustly borrowed from the original, each iteration contributed to the development of an emerging performance form. If we're to believe the case for copying Ferguson makes in his video, this is all part of the program, and one day all these imitations will lead to true innovation.
The interdependence of our creativity has been obscured by powerful cultural ideas but technology is now exposing this connectedness. We’re struggling legally, ethically, and artistically to deal with these implications… and that’s our final episode, part 4. – Kirby Ferguson
Compare and contrast the videos for yourself below. Visit Ferguson’s website to view parts 1 and 2 of his documentary series and, if you’re so inclined, contribute to this magnificent self-produced project.KAGEMU – Black Sun (2009)
Lorella Cuccarini – Sanremo 2010 Performance
Beyonce – Billboard Awards 2011 Performance