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Good Artists Borrow, Great Artists Steal (With Permission)

Written By Jennie Rose Halperin | Nov 10, 2016

One cannot help but wonder how the internet outrage machine would treat William Shakespeare, who almost certainly didn’t credit Giraldi for the plot of Othello in 1603 when he adapted his contemporary novel for the stage.

With #shakespearestole trending, he would likely be relegated to the outer fringes of #bardsofinstagram, tweeting his frustration in a late night, mead-fueled tweetstorm that would rival Donald Trump in its misguided ferocity.

“I wish we’d get rid of the theft image here. Let us say instead that great artists are commoners. They enter and live in that vast inheritance, the cultural commons.” – Lewis Hyde, On the Commons

In this crude example lies a fundamental truth: all great artists steal liberally from each other. As David Shields writes, “Reality can’t be copyrighted,” and to some extent that aphorism rings true. Art movements build on one another, and communities of artists produce, remix, and share work and styles as a product of their influences and surroundings. However, while “reality can’t be copyrighted,” art on the internet can, and knowing what’s okay to steal, and how, can be a bit of a challenge when navigating the world of cat videos and politics in your Facebook feed.

Even if it doesn’t have a “c” in a circle affixed to it, you should consider all the text, images, and videos you see on the internet as protected under copyright. For example, Instagram’s copyright help center points users to the World Intellectual Property Organization, which makes it clear that what you post on the internet is yours unless you say otherwise. Although this statement seems simple, there are plenty of loopholes in copyright law that makes it difficult to make a claim of infringement, even when it seems obvious, as in the fascinating case of Richard Prince’s Gagosian Gallery show.

Copyright, as it turns out, is not a concept particularly well suited to a world in which a derivative work can be made at the click of a button, and the line between “artistic theft and reappropriation,” infringement, and plagiarism, particularly where money is concerned, has never been thinner.

In order to “steal like an artist” instead of “plagiarize like an Instagram star,” creators on the web should generally follow this dictum: ask first. While augmentations to traditional copyright models like Creative Commons make sharing on the internet much clearer, a majority of people don’t bother to indicate how they would like their work licensed or used. Artists and photographers are often guilty of this lack of clarity, particularly in the age of art on social media. Unless you have written permission to share, remix, or reuse someone’s work, you should generally assume that permission has not been granted to you, and any other use is a copyright infringement.

The perennial example in talks like this one, is Bob Dylan’s theft of Woody Guthrie’s style, but thievery far predates the Nobel Laureate, and as Shields points out, it is a fundamental part of art, from the collage aesthetics of modernists like T.S. Eliot to the current culture of endless mashups and copies. Without sampling, remixing, and recreating, there would be no hip hop, no dance music, and no disco. (That last genre we could, arguably, live without.)

In the copyright advocacy world, we are quick to go after corporations for posting takedown notices of licensed works, but we also fundamentally believe in the rights of creators to show appreciation through attribution and respect for the terms of licensing that individual artists choose. In order to choose the right kind of licensing for your work, as well as to license the material you use correctly, it takes just a little bit of education and a lot of respect for the work at hand.

According to the internet, Steve Jobs, T.S. Eliot, Pablo Picasso, or Jim Jarmusch may have said something along the lines of, “Good artists borrow, great artists steal,” or possibly “art is theft,” but it remains unclear who said it first. To that quote, I’ll add a rejoinder: “Good artists borrow, great artists steal (with permission).”

To learn more about how to ethically license your work, visit Creative Commons or read more at the Fair Use Guide from the Stanford Libraries.

Jennie Rose Halperin is the communications manager at Creative Commons, a librarian, researcher, writer, and information literacy activist. You can read more of her work on Medium.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.