This post is about creative effort. It’s about the ownership of content. It’s about calling a spade a spade and a thief a thief.
This post has been triggered by my friend Barb’s post here.
Artists, writers, music-composers – all those who earn their living through creative effort have felt the pain of their work being stolen. There was a time when I used to wonder why otherwise “honest” people are quick to steal the creative work of their fellow-beings; why people who’d never, not even in their dreams, steal a watch, a cellphone, a diamond ring, or money – would quite readily pounce upon creative content and present it as their own. But that was another time, another era. Since then, through many such misfortunes of my own, I’ve discovered why.
Why People Steal Creative Work?
I’ve realized that there are three main reasons why people steal creative work (an act that’s euphemistically called Plagiarism.)
1. The Quality of Creative Work is Subjective.
I may say that James Bama or James Christensen are better artists than M.F. Hussein or Andy Warhol, but there are hundreds of thousands out there who’d verbally slash me into ribbons for saying so – and they’d have a more objective reason to counter me – the quantum of commercial success.
When quality of the output is subjective, everyone wants to be there and do that. And people who steal aren’t really the connoisseurs – they are those who just assume that all art is equal and available in abundance, and that if they steal an artwork, they are in fact, putting their stamp of approval on the artist. In fact, they presume that artists must be grateful for the attention.
2. Artists don’t/can’t fight back.
They don’t because the environment has trained them to be at the receiving end, just the way others are trained to think of artists as good-for-nothing bums who are just waiting for someone to notice their work and drop a penny in their bowl. They can’t because most artists whose work gets stolen are not famous and rich yet – and so they don’t have the means to drag the thieves to the court and make them pay. Have you ever heard a famous singer’s work being plagiarized in his or her own country? It doesn’t happen. But across borders, the thieves find their nerve, because law is often biased to favor the citizens of that country. And so the cross-border art-thieves are safe.
3. Copying isn’t Stealing!
In some cultures, copying isn’t stealing. Parents help the children trace, they help the children by drawing/writing for them, they even help the children change a few lines here and there so that the artwork appears to have been drawn by the child. The child grows up with the belief that copying isn’t stealing. Unfortunately, in art, in music, and in literature; IT IS! Rote learning is, in a way, learning to copy and learning to accept that copying is moral and legal. When a fourteen-year old learns an explanation of a passage by rote and regurgitates it on his examination answer sheet, only to get a perfect score, he also learns that creativity is crap.
Three Examples of Creative Work being Stolen
Stuff has been stolen from me all my life. Some of the things were material and I don’t recall most of them, but some were created with my sweat and pain, and I remember all those quite well.
Among many such robberies that shredded my faith in the integrity of my fellow human-beings, here are three such incidents – going backwards in time.
1. Cross-border Stealing
Some months ago, I got an email from a German gentleman who preferred to stay anonymous. He told me that a studio in Germany was stripping my credentials from my caricatures and presenting them as their samples to generate business. They even had a Facebook Page for it. I tried to harness the power of social media to stop the studio from doing so. Of my 50 or so Artist friends, none responded. They didn’t want to fight back. (Point 2 in the first list.)
One of my artist friends once remarked that we shouldn’t waste our energy on trying to stop the scum from stealing, instead, we should focus on creating. I’d like to ask the artists who believe that there’s no need to fight back – if someone stole their car, would they be as willing to step back and let the thief have it, as they would if someone stole their art?
Stripping a creative work of the credit and using it – is stealing. Period.
2. Within-borders Stealing
A little more than a year ago, one of the most prominent newspapers here (this publication also happens to be one of the largest circulated English daily newspapers of the world) , carried a caricature that I had done three years ago. My credit, my signature, all neatly cropped off. It was presented in a manner that it cast the impression of having been created by one of the caricaturists that caricatured the guests at a restaurant featured in the newspaper. It didn’t just hurt me, it also hurt all those who went to the restaurant hoping to get a caricature in the style and quality that was mine. But that shouldn’t hurt me, right? After all, who am I to say that the caricaturists hired by the restaurant at possibly a measly $10 an hour weren’t better than me? Remember point 1 in the first list? The quality of creative work is subjective.
I wrote to the editor…she sweet-talked, then she tried to pin the responsibility on a junior editor, next on an external party – never once apologizing. I was willing to let the matter go, she only had to accept and apologize. So I gave up and wrote to the Managing Director of the Publishing House. I never got an apology, but those I know in there, told me that she did get pulled up for it.
Not apologizing doesn’t mean that it wasn’t stealing. It was, and it will remain. Period.
3. Stealing from a Child
When I was in eight-grade, I used to draw pictures (generally, figures with decorative borders) and sometimes leave them between the pages of my books. A teacher, let’s call her SB (those are her actual initials,) borrowed my book so that she could ask us to read the passages from the book. From my place on the first bench, I saw her open the book and surreptitiously drop that sketch in her desk drawer; my friend saw it too. I felt sad, because it was a rather nice sketch and I wanted to go home and show it to my father. Nobody said anything, but the whole class knew that our teacher was a thief and she stole from the kids.
People who tried rationalizing this for me, told me that she did this because she liked my work, and that I should take it as a compliment.
So, if you like someone’s wife, steal her, because you are just paying a compliment to the man.
If you like someone’s pen, pilfer it, because you are merely expressing your appreciation for the pen.
Because your morality tells you that it’s not right. Because you know, that you cannot clad the act in the cloak of appreciation.
In truth, when my teacher took my drawing without asking me, she stole. Period.
In truth, when you take a creative work and make it look like you did it, you steal. Period.
I know you won’t.
Because you know that it’s immoral. It’s like saying that you fathered another man’s child. You wouldn’t do it. Would you?
So my dear otherwise honest friends, if you want an image for a non-commercial purpose, request permission from the artist. If you want to use it commercially, pay for it. It’s that simple, really 🙂
well said! 🙂
Thanks Barb. In my artist avatar, I am not much of a writer. I hope I’ve been able to convey my thoughts clearly.