Homage or theft?

Apparently, Beyonce is getting all sorts of grief over her newest music video where she is accused of appropriating the dance moves of Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s work in the 1990s (who complained that Beyonce should have at least tried to hide the similarities). But as an article in the Washington Post (Beyonce: “Countdown” video and the art of stealing) points out, appropriation is a long standing fact in the dance and music world. The article points to a rich tradition of artist borrowing each other’s work – sometimes as homage, some time as straight forward imitation. The article goes on to partially defend the practice:

To be clear: I’m arguing for creative borrowing on epistemological and esthetic grounds, not legal ones. Copyright law is a whole different matter, and some recording artists have been sued for lifting too much. (Singer Rihanna settled a lawsuit last month brought by a photographer who claimed she copied his images in her “S&M” video.) Strictly from the point of view of enlarging awareness and fostering creativity, there are positives in dance appropriation. Beyonce’s dancing has brought great attention to the name and work of an important choreographer little known outside the field of modern dance. Do we really believe de Keersmaeker would prefer that her moves be, to use her term, hidden?
. . .
The fact is, in our world of knowledge sharing, it is no easy thing to claim originality and hold on to it. Perhaps it’s time to let go. Some of the greatest creative minds freely admit to a roving appetite.
“We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas,” said Apple founder Steve Jobs in a 1994 interview, speaking about his company’s creation.
With so much of the world’s artistic output being tossed into the communal cook pot known as the Internet, the act of helping oneself to the bounty will only increase. You could look at it as stealing, or as Duchamp did: “new thought.”
Or you can see it as Beyonce did: a golden opportunity to mash up something new.

This raises a number of issues — including giving credit when using another’s work. Sometimes it seems that the issue of appropriation is as old as the creative arts themselves. I wonder if the first person to do cave drawings complained that others were stealing his/her technique. But thief of intellectual property is a serious economic problem. The trick is finding the balance. As I noted in previous postings, there are some areas where sharing is allowed but controlled (such as the taboo of letting non-magicians in on the trick). There are others, such as comedy, where the use of others’ material is ok within limits. And there are still others where it is argued that the industry advances by copying, such as fashion.
As I’ve said before, these examples of what has come to be called “IP negative space” point out that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the innovation and protection of ideas question. What works in one area may not work in another. What is deadly in one area may be absolutely critical in another. We need an innovation policy that can tell the difference.

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