That’s not “remixing”, that’s stealing

I get my ideas the old fashioned way -- I steal them! Image by Nemo, CC0
I get my ideas the old fashioned way — I steal them!
Image by Nemo, CC0
Sonny Bunch at the Washington Free Beacon has a piece on the recent acclaimed series True Detective and the apparent plagiarism on which it rests.

If you look at Davis’ examples, you can see they’re pretty damning. Most troubling, as Ace pointed out on Twitter, is the fact that the scene that clued audiences in to the fact that this show was something different—Rust Cohle’s (Matthew McConaughey) rants about the nature of humanity and his generally misanthropic outlook on life—was lifted almost word-for-word from Ligotti. These revelations follow previous reports that Pizzolatto “borrowed” from Alan Moore for the series’ closing lines. Pizzolatto, it seems, thinks that these ideas are just flying around through the air. Like Kelso in Heat, he knows how to grab them—and obviously feels justified in doing so.

And then he asks:

If everything is a remix, then why bother getting upset about yet another mashup?

As you probably know, I am very much a proponent of “remix culture”, specifically of “free culture” and the Creative Commons. I share CC-licensed music with you just about every week, with a bias towards Free Culture licenses. And every piece of writing I put out is CC-Licensed (look over to the right sidebar, at the bottom; see?), nearly all of it tagged with wide-open Free Culture licenses.

And here’s what I have to say about it: What True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto did is completely shitty and he’s a scumbag for doing it.

Because, see, Remix Culture isn’t plagiarism culture. Go to Creative Commons and look for the most open license you can find. What you’ll find is the Attribution license, which lets you do any damn thing you want with the work in question, including make money off of it without paying a thing to the creator — but you must give the creator credit for creating it.

(Yes, yes, there is a way to dedicate work to the public domain, the CC0 License. Not something most writers use, frankly, but it does exist and can be chosen if the creator so wishes.)

And in all cases, the license is chosen freely by the creator.

Poor Thomas Ligotti wasn’t even given any damn credit. (Pizzolatto did apparently mention him as “an influence” in an interview or two. Amazing that he had even that much conscience.)

Pizzolatto would have some defense as a remixer if Ligotti had truly been just an influence. For example, if his detective was a misanthrope along the same lines as Ligotti’s. But stealing the whole speech almost verbatim? That’s not influence, that’s copying. And without credit.

Certainly, you can find a few individuals who maintain that Intellectual Property is a “myth”. I’m going to deal with their arguments at some future point, but not soon. For the moment, I’ll just say that it’s a fairly (not completely) silly response to some very not-silly problems with IP as it is enforced in the real world today, and has been for quite some time. The problems are real, and should be dealt with, not dismissed simply because one proposed solution is so apparently bonkers.

If you wish to steal their works, go for it. They either won’t mind, or will provide you with delicious hypocritical publicity. So that’s a win-win.

But here’s the key: you can only do any of this with the creator’s permission. Fail that, and you fail to respect the creator and the creation.

To be clear, “there are no new ideas”, just about anybody who writes or creates will acknowledge that. Everything is a remix, because nobody invents everything ex nihilo.

That is a different thing from stealing exact wordings without acknowledgement.

Do I “remix”? Oh hell yes.

For the fragile Muses…” was inspired by an offhand comment made by Vienna Teng in a live performance about the genesis of her song “The Tower”. Which collided with my own experience of musical friends when I was in university. Then got stuck with one of my personal obsessions, the idea of being or needing to be a guardian. Which…

See how that works? If you know that it was inspired by Vienna Teng, you can see that in the story. But I didn’t freaking steal her song or her lyrics or her melody or anything. It was a starting point, to which I brought other elements of my own.

Spring That Never Came had even more disparate inspirations. The monologue in the first chapter is, I admit, very close to one I had the dubious privilege to witness first hand. I changed cultural references to fit the timeframe of the story, and condensed what I heard down to a relatively brief and coherent piece of exposition.

And my heroine, Tammy Kirsch, is definitely modelled on Christa Helm. I came across this blog devoted to the mystery of Helm’s murder and was fascinated not just by the blogger’s obsession, but with the seeming pointlessness of her death and what turned out to be the futility of her talents.

Coming a distant third is the influence from Lovecraft, followed by my guardian obsession again (in at least two variations, and probably more), a long-ago reading of Indecent Exposure: A True Story of Hollywood and Wall Street, and probably several other influences I’m not even remembering.

But out of all these old ingredients came a story that was wholly new.

That’s the point of saying “everything is a remix”. Not that you can steal from everyone with impunity, but that you take those influences and notions and ideas, and work them out in your own way into something else.

Oh, and one last thing. It’s funny that Bunch began his post by quoting from Michael Mann’s truly great crime epic Heat. Funny, because it’s a “remix” of Michael Mann’s own earlier TV movie, L.A. Takedown.


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