The following is a thought-piece. I am working towards a thesis on originality, and felt inspired to explore this vein. It does not necessarily reflect anything more than where I felt my argument flowing when I wrote it.
Can you remember a time when you were inspired to create? I seek inspiration when I am learning a new song. I listen to half a dozen recordings on YouTube, hear how a woman treats this line, highlights this lyric, subverts this message. When I finally come to perform, my performance is an amalgamation of all of these recordings and my own months of work. I see nothing that I create as wholly original (or originally whole), where originality is defined as having no reference to previous work. Outside of the admittedly past-obsessed world of Opera, my writing is also always a mash-up of others’ tones and styles and quips observations. I would feel ashamed of this unoriginality, except I believe it is natural and common to draw from those who have come before, who have seen the mountains I am now climbing and have walked a way up their slopes and slipped into their deep crevices. I believe everyone draws from others to create whole new works.
I also believe everyone who creates things which hold permanence–words, silks, clothes and plays and speeches into microphones and music videos and tiny wooden elephants–create these things for all time. A favorite writer* believes writers seek publication to avoid death. Art gives the creator a method of avoiding impermanence, of existing for eternity in the form they create. Even after the form they create is long rotten to dust and dirt they continue to exist in the minds of people who remember their work. This memory, unsure and elusive but as enduring as stone, artists crave because it guarantees their immortality.
It is this immortality which is most threatened by restrictions on artists’ work. Necessary restrictions some, because an artist cannot eat memory and would be loath to have others remember her work with the curly mustaches of adaption written on it. But this current security withholds something vital from their memes’ hosts. Artists’ demand, complain about and whine for control of their work for now and in the ever after. This feels false. Denying others the chance to grow upon, live fully in, and experiment with what they have given birth to creates artists’ most ill-formed sin: the denial to those who come after them of the roots they grew from. In cutting those roots, binding them to their corporeal bodies for two life-times, the artist is claiming ownership over gifts which were only lent to her, so for to keep the treasure longer than she was allotted. This is sin.
“The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” –Nelson Henderson
*pulls up suspenders and puts on UVA accent* My, my little lady. You sound like some sort of Red Communist.
I am being facetious, but I’m really intrigued by the ideas you’re bringing up (and I miss you terribly), so I wanted to respond.
Another common metaphor for creating art is giving birth (which you alluded as well), and I think that this metaphor might help explain the instinct that artists who want to protect their work possess. It makes sense, at least personally to me, that when a child is young, you want to protect it, to shield it from harm or ill use. Our art is like our children precisely because of all the effort we put into them to make them who they are. It can be very difficult to even expose our creation to the outside world, and to know that that creation may be ripped away from us over the course of time is no less devastating because what we are doing is derivative. (The method of begetting a child has many variations but the basic ingredient remain the same.)
In this elaborate metaphor there is the possibility of a simple compromise. Eventually art reaches an age when it can stand on its own two feet, usually when the “original” has entered the public consciousness in enough depth to be sure that any adaptation or parallel fiction acts as a separate artifact, not a competing one. That is when copyright can (and probably should) be released.
But I would argue it’s a little hyperbolic to suggest that it is sinful to hold fast to something that represents an extended struggle of effort to create. Would you ask a carpenter to give you a chair from his house because he used trees from a forest that borders both your land, or a pattern you both know? There is an innate uniqueness to each creative product because no artistic circumstances, no inspiration, is ever the same. Ideas aren’t the only ingredients in play. There’s style, form, and function. Art is alchemy in a lot of ways. The composition of the new whole is much more valuable than the separate ingredients. The magic (and the talent) is in the way you mix them together.