Originality, Intertextuality, and the Commercialization of the Idea

tumblr_inline_nbed6k4SFA1raeorf That we live in a commercial culture cannot be refuted. We define no small part of our individual identities through a low-key form of conspicuous consumption, we draw figurative battle lines to defend specific brands of beer or clothing or video game consoles from perceived criticism and competitors. We do the same with stories and characters, expressing and advertising ourselves through our support and exaltation of them. Modernity, however, has introduced a complication to the ways in which we perceive and interact with texts and creators. It constrains interflow between texts, it distorts our natural understandings of conversation between readers and authors, and it throws fuel on the flames of baseless attacks on creators.

I am talking, of course, about the necessary but flawed concept of creative copyright.

First things first: The techno-anarchic assertion that we don’t need a set of structures in place to protect the works of creators is absurd. At least until we as a global culture find some way to either get over ourselves and keep everyone eating or get over ourselves and adequately support and respect creative professionals, we’re gonna keep needing it.

Creators are most often individuals accruing small amounts of money over long periods of time, waiting for weeks or months for payment or even final decisions as to whether they’ll be paid at all. They can toil away for months or years on a single project all the while scraping by on day jobs or residuals from projects already in circulation. For people who must live like very patient sharks, a set of structures in place to tell bootleggers and other opportunists “Boo, fuck you,” is essential.

Creators, by and large, don’t receive pensions or other late-life financial support. For a person whose career has left her with little in the way of what we’d call an estate, regulations that allow her surviving family to derive some income and stability from her work are very important.

Copyright needs to exist, flawed though its current incarnations may be. We’d need to overhaul a whole lot more shit before we could abolish the practice.

But I think copyright has done something weird to our interaction with ideas, particularly on the popular/consumer level. Through the language of copyright and the language that we use to explain it, our understanding of texts as culminations of influence and experience is supplanted by the notion of texts, of ideas, as things. As discrete, like the very tangible form of an X-Box or the formula for Diet Coke.

They’re made singular, exceptional, packaged and sealed the instant they’re born from the creative vacuum of an author’s mind. A creator who’s sufficiently confident and self aware might tell you that’s not how it is, that creation is as much about cultivation and communication as it is about making the popular idea of creative magic happen.

We tend to look down our noses at influence that we can recognize. Pop culture critics derided Eragon most gleefully not for being below average but for being derivative of more technically savvy works already in those reviewers’ mental catalogs. That Tolkien lifted his fair share from works like Wagner’s Ring Cycle or that Lucas and company, in Star Wars, wrote a compelling and heavily borrowed-for love letter to sci-fi serials and samurai films. Never mind, further, that both texts follow mythic storytelling conventions so basic and ubiquitous that they’ve literally been codified.

What Tolkien and Lucas et al achieve here isn’t necessarily in being better craftspeople. They escape this criticism in large part because their borrowing extends outside the expected field of influence and even outside the popular reviewer’s frame of reference. That’s a pretty smart way to steal like an artist, if you’re going to do it. People won’t be looking for nods to Wagner in your anime space opera, or choreography cribbed from Kurosawa in your scifi dogfight movie. Odds are no one will suspect that repeated viewings of an X-rated psychedelic animated film went into the language of how a character in your fanfiction recalls and relives a sexual assault.

That last thing is a thing that I did, and this is our segue.

Fanfiction occupies a peculiar place in creativity as it exists today. Technically outside what’s allowed under copyright law, being a kind of derivative work, it’s also generally harmless. It’s people noodling around with something that they care about for zero profit, not bootleggers out to tease cash out of stuff they didn’t generate.

I was recently witness to the claim that fanfiction as a practice erodes the sanctity of copyright, a spurious notion that ignores a few key things. First, that there is and always has been a generalized understanding among those who write fanfiction that theirs is a precariously allowable hobby undertaken as a labor of love that’s removed from economy. Second, that fanfiction is nowhere near new enough to be considered an upstart threat to copyright’s eternal God Emperor reign. It predates the internet, copyright law, the printing press, and quite probably the written word because it’s so much closer to our natural inclination toward approaching stories as communication, as communal.

Stories, at their inception, were oral and transmutable. They remained largely so for a very long time even after the advent of written language due to the vast majority of people telling stories being pretty good with the talk-words but not so good with the gotta-be-a-lord-or-a-priest-to-learn-em-words. Entire localized variations on the Sleeping Beauty story, for example, arose out of the unavoidable malleability of storytelling passed along through playing Ye Olde Telephone with people whose preferences and local experiences shape the tale. Hell, Shakespeare’s King Lear is almost undoubtedly an adaptation of an existing play called King Leir. What a chump!

Except, no, this is just sort of how we do. We see things we like about something, things we can use, things we want to play with, so we do that thing. It’s just our impulse. We like to retell and retool stories; it’s wired into us as creatures that use narrative as communication. When we receive the message, we want to respond to the message or spread the message or add to the message. Fanfiction, like oral retelling and reimagining, is simply a typed manifestation of that impulse. It’s not an attack on the eternal holy tenants of copyright, it’s an expression of creative impulses that predate copyright. To argue otherwise betrays an ignorance to the creative process and the rich history of narrative itself.