Friday, March 16, 2007

"Higher Cribbing"

Creative license goes by a lot of names; "higher cribbing" is what Thomas Mann reportedly called it. A satirical Harper’s Magazine article by Jonathan Lethem, “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism,” is itself a model of higher cribbing, wherein Lethem combines passages written by others into a larger piece that comments brilliantly on the artistic process. Historically, artists have used allusion, appropriation, and transformation to influence their work. Musicologist Joanna Demers examines the clash of traditions and laws in contemporary music lawsuits in her book STEAL THIS MUSIC: HOW INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY LAW AFFECTS MUSICAL CREATIVITY. She entertainingly navigates the history of copyright law, intellectual property litigation, and their effect on musicians' work.

Lethem's article (be sure to see Open Source's
links to Lethem's muses) borrows this phrase from Demers’ book: “Musicians have gained the power to duplicate sounds literally rather than simply approximate them through allusion.” The point both the article and the book emphasize is the important difference between “transformative appropriation,” as Demers calls it, and copying. In his review of STEAL THIS MUSIC in PopMatters, Vincent Carducci notes, “Indeed, Demers’ book serves one of its most useful functions by reminding readers that the Romantic conception of authorship, which includes composers, artists and other creative types, is exactly that: romantic.”

Demers helps us to see that as technology changes, so must the laws that govern how information and art can be distributed.
Copyright laws, once intended to protect the creator for a short period of time, are now often applied in ways that stifle and chill creativity. Lawsuits can even determine who owns a specific sound. The Island Records and Warner-Chappell case against Negativland, for sampling U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” is one of many examples Demers offers of heavyhanded litigation.

Demers uses case studies like DJ Danger Mouse, now of Gnarls Barkley, whose Grey Album sampled from the Beatle’s White Album and Jay-Z’s Black Album, to show how the application of copyright can affect creative work. She represents the many sides of the debate, focusing on how all parties can benefit creatively and economically from allusion and appropriation. STEAL THIS MUSIC gives a clear picture of intellectual property laws as it explains the sometimes creatively stimulating consequences of their circumvention.

Research and writing: Sarah Sapinski

Top left: Copyright symbol art courtesy of The Copyright Symbol Webpage
Middle right: Photo of Joanna Demers by Inouk Demers
Bottom left: Cover of STEAL THIS MUSIC