Blatantly copy

"Blatantly copy" ~ Dr. Dennis Fehr

Blatantly Copy?

The prevalence of "copying" can be traced all the way back through human history. Even Aristotle in his defense of theatre said:

...the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated" (Poetics).

Since imitation is such a core difference in human beings we should rethink the notion of "originality."

Copyright law, however, has disrupted this natural inclination in the past century. Copyright law is a system that was intended to balance the rights of creators with the rights of the public. Many consumers and lawyers (like Larry Lessig) believe that copyright law has shifted far too far towards the content owners (most often not the artist but a corporation) and too far away from the public (an attack on fair use and a shrinking public domain). Retroactive extensions of copyright have prevented generations of artistic production from entering into the public domain (if not for the 1976 Copyright Act, for instance, Beckett's own English translation of Waiting for Godot would have entered the public domain Jan 1, 2011).

Artist/Activist Nina Paley, in her brief and wonderful Cult of Originality, says "Nothing is original. For a work to have meaning, it must use language -- it must "make sense." It needs to work with memes already living in the host mind: language, images, melodies, patterns. It can't be wholly original. It can hardly be original at all." In short, all creative work is derivative. Creative work builds on what came before it. This is even more evident in the emerging remix culture seen on the internet. The idea of copying (something that all artists have done -- probably to learn) should free you from the heavy burden of being original.

What does that mean for a playwright?

Playwrights have a history of being abused for their works. the difficulty concerning extensions to copyright's intention of limited monopoly, the issue of "originality," and the nature of artistic progression, however, the act of copying must be reevaluated for the present. A modern approach, in my opinion, is that of playwright Charles Mee. All of Mee's plays are available for reading, for free, on his website. The following is a note on his "about" page:

Please feel free to take the plays from this website and use them freely as a resource for your own work: that is to say, don't just make some cuts or rewrite a few passages or re-arrange them or put in a few texts that you like better, but pillage the plays as I have pillaged the structures and contents of the plays of Euripides and Brecht and stuff out of Soap Opera Digest and the evening news and the internet, and build your own, entirely new, piece--and then, please, put your own name to the work that results.

Mee recognizes both the existence and importance of the remix culture Lessig described in his book, Remix. It honors the idea of copying as a valuable activity for artists. Mee goes on to state, "There is no such thing as an original play." He notes, "None of the classical Greek plays were original: they were all based on earlier plays or poems or myths. And none of Shakespeare's plays are original: they are all taken from earlier work." So much for our romantic idea of artistic creation. Mee recognizes that there is a rich history of culture building upon itself. In short: you are not burdened with the romantic idea of creation. What you create need not be new. Go forth and "pillage" what already exists.

NOTE: If you're concerned about using copyrighted works, be sure to check out Patricia Aufderheide & Peter Jaszi's book Reclaiming Fair Use. The Fair Use exception to copyright law has been underutilized in their eyes. Artists like you can strengthen Fair Use by employing it in your works under Best Practices described in the book and available on the Center for Social Media's website.

  1. Re-read your entire scene.
  2. Get out a piece of paper (or a word processor) and:
  3. Make sure that at least two of these elements are added to your script (but more would be great).
  4. Hide away your original scene (completely out of view -- do not look at it during this exercise).
  5. Rewrite your scene with your new items from existing sources.

Some Public Domain Material

The below are mainly to entice you to the possibilities of using the Public Domain (and certainly the importance of having a Public Domain).

NOTE: Between the time when I created and employed this exercise, and the time I'm finally releasing it publicly, there has been a horrifying shift in the stability of the Public Domain. There are many places to read about this, but I just want to you be aware. This TechDirt article is a good place to start: "The key point in the case was questioning whether or not the US could take works out of the public domain and put them under copyright." -- Supreme Court Chooses SOPA/PIPA Protest Day To Give A Giant Middle Finger To The Public Domain

Main Sources
Some Material from those Sources
Some References (Not Necessarily Public Domain)