Permissible Plagiarism?

Recently, I’ve read numerous reports of artists who have offended their fans and contemporaries with arguably the most heinous crime an artist can commit. Usher, Bob Dylan, and Beyoncé have all been called plagiarists.

Leon Busy's "Woman Smoking Opium"
Leon Busy’s “Woman Smoking Opium”

The New York Times reports that critics have noted that some of Bob Dylan’s paintings in New York’s Gagosian Gallery seem to bear striking resemblances to others’ photographs. Take a look at his work, “Opium” above and Leon Busy’s “Woman Smoking Opium.”

Usher is contesting claims that his 2004 hit “Burn” gained a bit too much of its influence from songwriter Eric Lee Straughter’s “The Reasons Why.” My apparently musically underdeveloped ears could not sense significant similarities between the two songs, but Usher may have to testify before a jury to defend his originality.

Similarities between Beyoncé’s choreography in her new video for “Countdown” and choreography by Belgian Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker are more obvious. See a side-by-side comparison after the jump.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a virtue-ethicist who would accept any sort of plagiarism as virtuous, but perhaps listening to Usher break up with an ex in “Burn” or watching Beyoncé perform in “Countdown” makes all of society better off than it was before any acts of plagiarism; does a utilitarian perspective extol plagiarism in any case? Perhaps we should just use Beyoncé as our moral compass. She admits that De Keersmaeker’s choreography was “one of the inspirations used to bring the feel and look of the song to life,” along with a number of other influences—and she is clearly fine with using such “inspirations” without much variation.

Beyoncé’s response reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s reaction to similar “plagiarism” of one of his articles. Playwright Bryony Lavery’s blatant use of prose from an article that Gladwell wrote seemed forgivable because she projected the source material into a play; Lavery turned Gladwell’s nonfiction into “a work of art.” According to Gladwell, the key for a significant adaptation is turning old material into something newly creative; he admires the use of “old words in the service of a new idea,” and I’d say that I do too.

Gladwell’s moral acceptance of Lavery’s plagiarism has contributed to my own opinions about reproduction and influence in art. While I don’t condone taking extreme amounts of influence from artists without giving them credit, if an artist has truly used this influence for a new, creative, and highly original product, I feel less willing to condemn him or her as a plagiarist.

Does Bob Dylan’s “Opium” contribute any significant originality to its source material? According to the Gagosian Gallery, “While the composition of some of Bob Dylan’s paintings are based on a variety of sources, including archival, historic images, the paintings’ vibrancy and freshness come from the colours and textures found in everyday scenes [Dylan] observed during his travels.” Does the fact that I still can’t hear great similarities between Usher’s “Burn” and Straughter’s work suggest that Usher (if he had even heard the song before he began work on his own) has contributed a song to the art community that can be called his own? Does Beyoncé’s removal of De Keersmaeker’s choreography from classical ballet to a more contemporary landscape in support of her lyrics in “Countdown” justify her actions?

Let’s face it – art is a highly personal subject, and artists are constantly influenced by the work of others. Malcolm Gladwell questions the “black-and-whiteness” of plagiarism by suggesting that the use of such influence in the service of new ideas may be acceptable. So before you burn your Bob Dylan posters and toss your Beyoncé albums, consider the ways in which they contributed (or failed to contribute) a new perspective to old art.

To complicate the issue even further, consider the status of the “plagiarists” we’ve considered here. I have to wonder why it’s okay for YouTube sensations to rise to prominence by covering others’ songs, often without any significant changes, if we criticize Beyoncé or Usher for gaining influence from others. Do we hold established artists to a higher standard, expecting them to be highly original at all times, or are we offended by the injustice of the rich and famous taking credit from those who are not as prominent or wealthy? I’m not entirely sure why I’m completely comfortable watching strangers cover my favorite songs and surprised when I hear a famous musician under fire for plagiarism, but I know that I’m reluctant to severely criticize any artist for being inspired by the work of others, because inspiration is everywhere and a new artist can put a new spin on old influences.