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I Can See Your House From Here, v 2.25
Editorial and Inflammatory Comments by Kenn McCracken
© Kenn McCracken

It's a strange thing for me to see a shift from file sharing woes to accusations of honest-to-goodness plagiarism and creative theft. I mean, it's been happening for years and years, this artistic cheating, but it's rare that you hear about it outside of high school classrooms. Especially lately, when Dr. Dre and Metallica have been everywhere, shouting at anyone who will listen that Internet file trading will be the death of the music industry, and peer-to-peer networks like Gnutella have made everything from computer software to needlepoint patterns available to anyone with a connection to the Web.

Maybe that explains it though: it's an attention thing. We're tired of hearing about Afghanistan and recessions and pretzel-induced fainting spells; we're tired of hearing the endless debates about file sharing, but while we're thinking about thievery, who else can we apply a label to?

For starters, there's Stephen Ambrose, the renowned historian, who recently admitted that he might have stolen a line or two from lesser known history books. Forgivable, though -- turns out the source is acknowledged, but just not acknowledged properly with quotation marks. Fair enough; a guy like Ambrose is allowed to make a mistake every now and then.

Or how about Dave Sim, creator and writer of Cerebus? Colleen Doran points out that, in the foreword to his latest issue, he all but admits to stealing from Nicholas Zivkovic, who sent Sim some stuff in the early 1990s. The writing impressed Sim -- so much so that he's using some of it in the new issue. Not exactly plagiarism; like Ambrose, Sim cites his source (even mentioning that he's got a check for the guy, if he comes forward or if Sim can track him down). Even still, there's the issue of copyright to deal with (ironically, something that Sim has been apt to rant about in the past).

Step back a few years, and there was a long-running debate that started in (if memory serves) the pages of the Comic Buyer's Guide. It revolved, at least for a time, around some of the Image founders (Rob Liefeld in particular), and on how they were lifting chunks of art from other sources. There was a semantics component -- was the panel in question an homage or a direct lift? -- but the fact remained that more and more of their panels looked as though they had been traced and then tweaked to fit the current book or character.

If you look around, you'll see this same sort of thing in all the artistic media, from films to music to painting to web design Some of it honest -- we all take from our past experiences when creating, after all. I've been guilty of using a phrase here and there that I picked up in another book or article, and I've stolen a chord change or two in my time. I doubt sincerely that there is more than a handful of artists that can honestly say they've never done the same. That's fine, though; absorbing other people's work is part of the creative process, and if some of it is regurgitated along the way, it is to be expected.

But what about those who cross the line, stealing full songs, or story ideas, or passages of text? Where's the creation there? Okay, maybe you think that the core concept of Fight Club was really great stuff, but the execution was flawed, so you take it and rewrite it. Should you call it your own? If you repaint the Mona Lisa because you just aren't sure about the fashion involved, is the painting any better than a tracing?

I'm not against remakes. If some director thinks that he or she can do a better job of putting Miracle on 34th Street on the screen, more power to them. But if Vanilla Ice wants to add a solitary beat to two measures of a riff from a Queen song and call it his, I (along with the sane population) have to draw the line. Why should we do any differently with storytellers or artists or musicians?

I think a lot of this occurs because of money. There's a copyright issue here; if you own the copyright to a piece of created work, then all money generated by that piece belongs to you (and your creditors, of course). If a band records a cover version of Under Pressure, they owe $0.07 of every CD or cassette produced to the publishers of the original; if they can call it their own, they owe nothing, unless the courts see right through your bad haircut and fifteen minutes of fame. Likewise, artists that trace -- or even produce an homage -- every other panel are less likely to get hired than those who can work on their own ideas. Writers that steal from others -- well, they go broke, because the public will just buy the original.

The saddest part to me is that there are creators out there who would do this. I can understand a garage band who play nothing but cover tunes; I've known many a musician who enjoys playing music but has no creative juice, and they accept that. They're fine with getting on stage every night and playing the hits. There are ghost writers who write someone else's idea; it's like a collaborative effort, where one person has a suitcase full of great stories who needs a partner with a gift for words. But outside of this, it angers me that there are so many people who would steal just to be recognized as creators. One, there are a thousand writers who can't get read; when there's someone like Sim out there who is making a living off of someone else's creativity, it makes me cry "Foul!" as loudly as I can. Two, creativity is a rare gift; it saddens me to no end to know that there are some who are getting paid and recognized on false claims, and others are toiling away in dead end jobs while the fruits of their labor are redirected.

There are plenty of hacks out there who can't create their own work, so they borrow liberally from others to keep the fame and money rolling. They won't give up their positions -- who would, really? Fame and money are addictive drugs -- I imagine even more so when you don't have to work to get them. But you can send a message to those people by not supporting them -- stop going to see their movies, and buying their CDs and books. Write letters to industry magazines if you spot something, so that more people will know what's happening. Hell, start early: those of you still in school, make sure that you report cheaters right away. If you're taught early on that you can get by in life on other people's work, you're not likely to reevaluate that position when money is involved.

There's a widening gap between what people expect for themselves and what they will tolerate in others. More and more, it seems fine for Dave Sim to use someone else's material with little or no compensation, while you can fully expect a storm of ridiculous proportions if the same were ever to happen to him. The gap has got to stop growing, at the least. If you're going to be a creator, then create; if you're going to steal, then be something else.

Perhaps time will prove to set everything right, though. Looking at history would certainly seem to hold this up. Ambrose did the right thing when confronted with the accusations: he apologized, and corrected text is forthcoming. Even after a lawsuit was filed by David Bowie and Queen, Vanilla Ice continued to claim that the minuscule change made the music his. Rob Liefeld continues to say that his work was filled with tributes, not rip-offs.

And guess which one of them still has a job?

RevolutionSF comics editor Kenn McCracken is now available with footnotes.

Logo © John Muth.

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