You’re only as original as the obscurity of your sources. Pablo Picasso
I am a visual artist; before that, I was a (very minor) professional musician. I have come to my own ethical conclusion regarding originality – not a valid legal one, to be sure – that, as long as I am making art that comes from and is imbued with my personal perspective and my voice, I am not taking anything that is not mine; I am giving something of me to the work.
The recent legal dust-ups in the world of pop music (Sam Smith/Tom Petty and Estate of Marvin Gaye/Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams, and Clifford Harris, Jr.) have given me more than a bit of creative heartburn, so this morning, I took a Google stroll through the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of the word original, which led to the definition of the word copy, which led to the word similar . . .
Except for making my brain hurt, this exercise did very little to help me understand the extremes to which it seems we have gone, as a society, in terms of what determines that something is an “original” idea.
It’s hard for artists, sometimes, to see that their work might be (who am I kidding – IS) derivative. Sometimes, our sources are so obscure that we aren’t conscious that we are drawing from those works, ideas, concepts, and techniques of those who came before. Other times, they are more obvious.
Back in my bar band days, our trio used to sing these three 3-song medleys to show that lots of old music is new and new is old:
Louie Louie 1955, Hang On, Sloopy 1964, Wild Thing 1965
Cherry, Cherry 1966, What I Like About You 1980, R.O.C.K. in the USA 1985
Here, There, and Everywhere 1966, Sunshine on My Shoulders 1971, Longer 1979
Go ahead. Pull up one on You Tube and sing along – sing any one of the three along to any other. Big Fun! (and Paul McCartney never called for John Denver’s head on a platter.) My musician’s ear hears that, while they are not exact copies, they are surely as close as Blurred Lines is to Got to Give It Up.
Every human being is an original, yet we have common component parts, much the same as those who came years before us . . . We’ve been walking this planet with pretty much the same hearing and sight abilities for a very long time. Let’s all just lighten up a little and acknowledge that we did not invent color or sound. Let’s be grateful for what we can see and hear and all play happily together.