It’s mine. NO it’s MINE!

In his autobiography, Frank Zappa maintains that there is a strict distinction between a composer and a musician, and that credit for music should go to composers:

“Music comes from composers — not musicians. Composers think it up; musicians perform it. If a musician improvises when he is performing, he becomes, during those moments, a composer — the rest of the time, he is the interpreter of a musical design originated by a composer.” (1988)

So what passes for new, original in today’s mashup world? Debates over copyright rage. The status of different forms of expression is hotly contested. Attention spans are shortening, and the most popular forms of expression are short-form, often derivative of other art.

One of my favorite ways to cut someone down is to call their work “derivative.” I often say this about an analyst I briefly dated. “All he did was pontificate about companies and their management. People and organizations who actually CREATE new things and experiences, and EMPLOY people. Action. If it weren’t for them, there’d be no marketplace to criticize and certainly no jobs for reactionaries like him.”

It’s not very Zen of me, this need to cut others down, and be right. Complaints like mine parrot what artists often say about their critics. On some level, I know I am bitter with the guy for not being interested in me, and that some people actually find his work useful. There’s room for everything in this world ─ to each her own. Men and women, right and left, people of action and reactionaries — we need it all. Balance is key. And in the spirit of Zendom, I will cease and desist from making fun of him … after one last jab:

Another habit of this fellow was to take credit for the most basic of things. He literally bought copyrights to the phrase: “You can’t stop the revolution.” Or something like that. How ridiculous is that? (And is he going to sue me for using it here?! If you are reading this now, I’d like to take this opportunity to let you know that you are not a Sandinista rebel. You are a wealthy hedge fund manager living like a sultan in your Soho loft. Give it up, dude.)

People these days (mostly Alpha males, and the occasional Alpha female) often claim “their” ideas were ripped off by someone else. The egotism! It’s not that we or the people before us were all originals; it’s that WE DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT EVERYBODY ELSE THE WAY WE DO TODAY. We couldn’t read into eachother’s minds and motivations before. We couldn’t get to see or hear every possible band or TV show or publication any damned time of day, in any place. Credit for the ideas went to whomever was lucky enough to get the platform to present them. True, once they got the platforms, they shaped our culture. But culture and technology marches on, and now everyone with an Internet connection is invited to the conversation.

Consider this passage from McLuhan:

Authorship – in the sense we know it today, individual intellectual effort related to the book as an economic commodity – was practically unknown before the advent of print technology. . . . The invention of print did away with anonymity, fostering ideas of literary fame and the habit of considering intellectual effort as private property. Mechanical multiples of the same text created a public – a reading public. The rising consumer-oriented culture became concerned with labels of authenticity and protection against theft and piracy. The idea of copyright… was born. (p. 122)

I don’t have the answers on what constitutes ORIGINAL composition, creation versus mere interpretation of another person’s design. Who owns what, who gets credit, what’s fair use and all that. It’s an ugly issue. As a speechwriter, I pretty much accept the fact that I’m giving my billionaire bosses unlimited use of my ideas and words. They get quoted sounding super intellectual and ahead of the curve. And I continue to enjoy my lower-stress-existence reading and writing my days away, having meaningful relationships, gaining valuable knowledge … and quietly posting on my blog. Not sure who’s got the better deal, but I’m pretty certain the term “derivative” doesn’t carry the same weight as a pejorative anymore.

Special thanks to Marco, whose musings today inspired this post.

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6 Comments

Filed under art, honchos, media, music, uncategorized, zen shit

6 responses to “It’s mine. NO it’s MINE!

  1. Nice post! I’m quite amused at the fact that you read Marshall McLuhan as well – I’m a big fan and advocate of technological determinism. Another amusing fact is that we’re engaged in very similar vocations: you, a speechwriter by trade and myself, a language trainer educated in speech communication.

    While I feel that this may be a bit too extreme, there is a lingering notion at the back of my head that idea of originality that we currently subscribe to belong to the world controlled by the old media. The new media and information systems have a very high tendency of abolishing that notion since the current electrical information network that we are so immersed in, i.e. the internet, is an unbelievable extension of our central nervous system. It perfectly fits McLuhan’s framework don’t you think?

    In my point of view, this has several implications. First, that any idea that is made available to this information system can be looked at as everyone else’s idea as much as it is yours. Secondly, since everyone is involved in this network, once cannot easily claim that a certain idea was completely original as it could just as easily be presumed that a person picked up the idea through this extension of his CNS.

    Personally, I believe that these days, originality in the old sense can be very, very difficult to achieve. However, the ability to personalize/individualize of an idea, creation or invention seems to be the order of the day.

    Moreover, in the same way that the wheel is believed to have been invented at the same time in various places independently of each other, new ideas in this new age can surface instantaneously. Interesting, because Marshall McLuhan has always talked about the “re-tribalization” of human civilization, and the pattern of invention and creation that we’re experiencing today is only slightly different from how early civilizations came up with their creations.

    Marco

  2. Marco, I am blown away. Where did you come from? Oh, right … we share a CNS.

    I too am fascinated by our similar vocations, interest in McLuhan and passion for music (though I don’t make music like you do).

    I DO agree with your lingering idea: that idea of originality that we currently subscribe to belongs to the world controlled by the old media.

    In this universe, anything is possible. Like you and I meeting at random, having this convo, while living across the planet.

  3. kristina

    check out the scene in “annie hall” when mcluhan makes a cameo. it’s part of a fantasy scenario envisioning a world in which we all get an “instant eject” button for yammering dolts (in this case, those who pontificate in movie queues).

    there is nothing original under the sun.

  4. Well, randomness is starting to become accepted (it if it still hasn’t been accepted) by physicists as a principle inherent in the universe (and perhaps the parallel universes that both String Theory or M-Theory propose).

    Added your blog to my bookmarks. 🙂

  5. just added you under pals, marco. cheers!

  6. and k, i put annie hall at the top of my netflix queue, (for like the 3rd or 4th time in the past few years).

    xo

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