Science fiction author and MacArthur genius grantee Jonathan Lethem had a stupendous article on copyright and plagiarism in last month's Harper's (be sure to read it right through to the end!).
Now, Siva Vaidhyanathan writes in with the news that, "Tonight on the PRI show 'Radio Open Source,' Christopher Lydon will interview novelist Jonathan Lethem, author Siva Vaidhyanathan, and musicians Mark Hosler (of Negativland) and Mike Doughty (of Soul Coughing) about the politics of plagiarism and originality. The podcast should be available soon after the program airs."
In a courtroom scene from The Simpsons that has since entered into the television canon, an argument over the ownership of the animated characters Itchy and Scratchy rapidly escalates into an existential debate on the very nature of cartoons. “Animation is built on plagiarism!” declares the show's hot-tempered cartoon-producer-within-a-cartoon, Roger Meyers Jr. “You take away our right to steal ideas, where are they going to come from?” If nostalgic cartoonists had never borrowed from Fritz the Cat, there would be no Ren & Stimpy Show; without the Rankin/Bass and Charlie Brown Christmas specials, there would be no South Park; and without The Flintstones–more or less The Honeymooners in cartoon loincloths–The Simpsons would cease to exist. If those don't strike you as essential losses, then consider the remarkable series of “plagiarisms” that links Ovid's “Pyramus and Thisbe” with Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, or Shakespeare's description of Cleopatra, copied nearly verbatim from Plutarch's life of Mark Antony and also later nicked by T. S. Eliot for The Waste Land. If these are examples of plagiarism, then we want more plagiarism...
The dream of a perfect systematic remuneration is nonsense. I pay rent with the price my words bring when published in glossy magazines and at the same moment offer them for almost nothing to impoverished literary quarterlies, or speak them for free into the air in a radio interview. So what are they worth? What would they be worth if some future Dylan worked them into a song? Should I care to make such a thing impossible?