Is Everything Really Just A Remix: Plagiarism vs. Inspiration

Zeppelin

Last week I wrote a post about recent revelations that longtime journalist Chris Hedges has, for some time now, been lifting other writers’ words and passing them off as his own. The whole matter seemed pretty cut and dry. Plagiarism is an ill born of some unknowable combination of laziness, ignorance, and hubris. But then I stumbled upon an interesting (and very well-made) video series called Everything Is A Remix, and I’m curious about where we draw the line between stealing someone else’s work and, well, using previous work as a springboard for (suspiciously identical) inspiration.

I’ve only seen the first two videos in the series so far, but from what I can tell the premise is quite compelling: What do we do when we realize that all art is, in fact, derivative? For instance, fans of Led Zeppelin (myself included) shouldn’t be surprised to learn that many of the band’s most celebrated songs—including “Stairway To Heaven” and  “Dazed and Confused”—are pretty much direct, unattributed ripoffs of songs that came before them. Ever heard of this guy?

A bit more startling was to watch some of the uncanny instances where George Lucas used shots and conceits from several other films in making Star Wars: Episode IV. And he isn’t the only one. As Remix narrator and filmmaker Kirby Ferguson points out, Hollywood (and the music industry, for that matter) has made billions by way of recycling old material, and will probably continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

To be sure, Everything Is A Remix does not set itself up as a defense of plagiarism—and neither does this blog post. But I think it’s worth exploring some of the nuances between purloining the intellectual property of others and using that property in an interesting (fair?) way to go on and make newer iterations.

What’s more, I’m left wondering how to feel about the issue when I’m confronted with instances wherein artists I love and admire seem to be lifting material quite unapologetically for their own purposes. Consider, for instance, the insanely obvious parallels between Prince’s “Purple Rain” and Ryan Adams’ “Hotel Chelsea Nights.” I mean, shit. It’s like Adams was writing the exact same song with different words.

Or consider this 2012 LA Times article that looks at the many instances where, throughout his career, Bob Dylan has been accused of plagiarizing the songs and lyrics of those who came before him. In response, Dylan made some interesting declarations about the organic and muddied nature of the issue. Like this:

Dylan added: “I’m working within my art form. It’s that simple. I work within the rules and limitations of it. There are authoritarian figures that can explain that kind of art form better to you than I can. It’s called songwriting. It has to do with melody and rhythm, and then after that, anything goes. You make everything yours. We all do it.”

This issue will never go away. In fact, in the internet age—where so much material is so easily shared and repurposed—I have a suspicion that the conversation will only grow fiercer and more challenging. In the meantime, check out the first two parts of Everything Is A Remix below (and visit the site for more—it’s worth it). I’d love to get your thoughts.

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4 responses to “Is Everything Really Just A Remix: Plagiarism vs. Inspiration

  1. I love both Purple Rain and Hotel Chelsea Nights, but it had never occurred to me how similar they are. Now that I think about it, I can’t un-hear it.

    • Right?! I’ve been listening to both songs for years…and then one day I had this ah-ha moment out of nowhere. I can’t believe it’s not more widely discussed. Thanks for the comment.

  2. In one sense everything is derived from what came before it. That’s particularly true in entertainment. Any successful movie instantly produces a horde of rip-offs. Yet, it’s the quality and success of the work often determines how forgiving we are of the plagiarism. Star Wars is much more than the ideas Lucas took from other films.

    What we don’t tend to forgive is when the artist or writer obviously hasn’t done the work. Hedges obviously lifted another reporter’s quotes to avoid going into the field and talking to people. We would forgive his coming up with the same story as long as he did the actual reporting.

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