Lately, my co-worker and friend Nathan Borror and I have had some discussions about what I like to call appropriation. You might call it remixing or influence, or you might refer to it as theft, rip-off, or copyright infringement.
Whatever you call it, one thing can not be denied: creative people, including us web designers, are more aware of intellectual property laws than ever before, and are tending to be far more uptight and even litigious about this sort of thing than in the past. I don’t think Nathan and I quite have the exact same view, but I think we do agree on this: a lot of people need to lighten the hell up.
A lot of this discussion came after both Nathan and I listed to an awesome episode of the great podcast Open Source entitled The Ectasy of Influence. That episode was a reaction to Jonathan Lethem’s terrific Harper’s article of the same name. The basic gist of the podcast is that appropriation of other people’s work is a core tenet of all forms of art (both fine and commercial), and that without it, many of our greatest artists would have never created their most significant works. Go listen to the podcast, and then return. Trust me.
I spent way too many years of my life studying jazz at a University. For those who don’t know, the way a jazz tune typically goes down is like this: a song basically consists of two things — a chord progression (the “changes”) and a melody (the “head”). That’s it. When a group of jazz musicians are on a bandstand, one will say something like, “let’s play a blues in F.” The blues, of course, is a set of changes (a chord progression). Someone else will say, “yeah, okay…how about Now’s The Time for the head?” Nods will ensue, and the next thing anyone says is, “uh one, two, uh one two three four…” and everyone starts playing the classic Charlie Parker tune. They group will play through the head, sometimes twice, and then there will be improvised solos. After the solos, they’ll play the head again, and the song will be over. Simple, huh?
Yes…but what about those improvised solos? How does one learn to improvise? Are they really making all that up on the spot?
One learns to improvise, mostly, by learning other people’s solos. When I played jazz trumpet in school, I had many an assignment to transcribe and/or memorize classic solos by Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, and Lee Morgan. Besides learning full solos, jazz students learn “licks,” short bebop phrases that work over a certain chord pattern, and scales designed specifically for a achieving a certain type of sound (such as the “blues scale” that most everyone learns in high school). Jazz musicians usually refer to all these bits as their “vocabulary.”
So, when a jazz player is actually on stage, playing a solo between the heads of a song, what they are really doing (almost always), is creatively piecing together snippets of other people’s solos, learned licks, and so forth. They are, quite literally, speaking with the vocabulary they’ve learned. They’re making up the sentences and paragraphs on the fly, but it’s pretty rare that they’re inventing new words.
In jazz, appropriation of other people’s solos isn’t only a given, it’s encouraged. It’s a part of the fabric of that music. Imagine what would happen if someone cried foul and filed a lawsuit every time a horn player blew a Charlie Parker lick. It would be the end of jazz as we know it.
I see the same thing in hip-hop these days. A quick Google search indicates that at least 15 different MCs have used the phrase “white tee and nikes,” or some derivative thereof, in their flows. I have no idea who said it first, but I don’t think anyone is getting sued over it. Some of the uses are no doubt referential — perhaps even homages to those who said it before them — and others are probably just flat-out theft.
Many creative people, be they web designers or otherwise, go through a process of “finding their voice.” This can take many, many years. Often times, during this phase, they re-appropriate ideas from other sources. Eventually, many of them will “find their voice” and become a great artist in their own right. Charlie Parker himself alluded to this when he said, “You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.” Should these people be shunned and ousted from the community while they are going through this process?
We know Picasso made a habit of ganking ideas from other painters. He even uttered the famous quote, “good artists copy, great artists steal.” We know that some of the greatest pop music of the past several years has been the result of heavy sampling (see Dangermouse’s Grey Album or Gnarles Barkley’s record “Crazy”). We know that some of the coolest web apps are mashups of data from disparate sources. And so on.
So why is it that we web designers flip out when we find a site that resembles our own?
I’m not sure. I don’t have all the answers here. I just want to start a discussion about it. My personal feeling is one that is pretty liberal. The only thing that really offends me personally, is egregious, flat-out theft of my intellectual property. You will make me angry if you directly steal my site’s design and pass it off as your own work. You probably won’t make me angry at all if you steal bits and pieces of my work and add value to them by mashing them up with your own ideas, or those of others. You also won’t likely make me angry if you steal my site’s design and give me proper credit. I probably will be irritated, though, if you steal my site’s design and sell it to a client.
What is boils down to, I think, is that it’d be nearly impossible to come up with hard and fast rules about this sort of thing. Each case needs to be evaluated on its own, I think.
But, overall, I think the web design community is just a little too uptight about this stuff.