From Homage to High-Jacking: Where’s the Line?

Music and art are intensely social entities. They are fluid from inception to presentation, constantly being interpreted and reinterpreted. One artist’s work inspires another’s which then inspires another’s, forming a long chain of influence. The question is, at what point and to what extent is it required to obtain permission from and/or give credit to those further up the chain from you?

At the Times Square New Year’s Eve celebration, Cee Lo Green was asked to perform John Lennon’s Imagine. Credit was given by the hosts of the televised broadcast just prior to the performance (as you can see in this video on The Hollywood Gossip [fast-forward to 2:55 and mind the noise-makers.]) The issue here isn’t with credit but rather the simple change Mr. Green made that spawned numerous criticisms. Where the lyrics were originally written as “Nothing to kill or die for and no religion, too” Cee Lo opted to sing “Nothing to kill or die for and all religion’s true”. Obviously a controversial change but we won’t be getting into that debate. Rather, we’re asking if he was wrong to make the change in the first place. Is this or any song beyond another artist’s reinterpretation? No. Here’s why.

When an artist produces a piece of work there is always going to be a message they want to attach to it. If they are covering another artist’s work, they may not agree with the originator’s message. As such, they are free to make what changes they wish to the music, the tone or the lyrics. If they don’t, they misrepresent both themselves and the music. (Picture a renowned vegetarian doing a TV spot for a Steakhouse.) By altering the lyric as he did, Mr. Green presented himself honestly and allowed the audience to interpret his performance as his own. That is both the presenter’s prerogative and obligation.

Similar to this situation, a recent edition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn by NewSouth Books replaced all instances of the word “nigger” with “slave” and refrained from using the word “Injun”. Again, this is a controversial decision to make; one that will stir up discussions of racism and censorship. Ignoring that, however, how does NewSouth do when it comes to presenting this new product to the public and attributing it correctly?

As you can see from the cover image on the publisher’s site, the book is still presented as ‘Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn’ but with the added subtitle of ‘The NewSouth Edition’. The publisher has also added a note that the novel has been edited by Alan Gribben. Then, in his foreword, Gribben addresses both his interpretation of Twain’s original intentions in writing the novels and his own reasons for the edits mentioned above. Much like Cee Lo’s performance, while there may be much to discuss about why the changes occurred, all credit is given and all changes are acknowledged as belonging to the editor. Their execution in no way violates the relationship and respect required between the creator and those they inspire.

So those are two situations where a controversial change was made and handled well. The controversy lies elsewhere in this next tale. In 2006, Jess Fink, a cartoonist and illustrator, was offered a job by Todd Goldman, founder of the well-known David and Goliath, purveyor of  ‘stupid apparel’. Nothing came of the offer until a few months later when she was made aware of a number of designs on the D&G website that appeared to be ripped off from those she had for sale on Threadless. This wasn’t the first nor was it the last time she was plagiarised. The entire debacle is chronicled on Fink’s tumblr and is well-worth reading. Goldman is clearly in the wrong here. To violate not one but numerous artists‘ copyright but to do so after offering one a job producing such designs as you’re stealing is atrocious. No discussion is necessary here but it sets us up nicely for the final scenario.

About a week ago, Eric Wood, founding member of the ‘powerviolence’ act Man Is the Bastard, discovered that indie-folk troupe Akron/Family had been selling t-shirts featuring the MItB trademark skull logo (Pitchfork). This upset Wood a great deal and prompted him to post vulgar messages to A/F’s facebook wall and asked his fans to follow suit.

So where does this fall in the spectrum? Akron/Family certainly profited off of a product prominently featuring Wood’s “work” (more on the need for quotation marks later). Would anyone who bought the shirt have done so if they weren’t already a fan of Akron/Family? Wood was also in the wrong here, opting to post hateful and abusive messages in a public forum as opposed to contacting a lawyer or the label and issuing a Cease and Desist order. Alternatively he could have simply contacted Akron/Family, as former Man Is the Bastard member Israel Lawrence did. He would have found out there’s more than sheer plagiarism going on.

The entire conversation between Lawrence and A/F bassist Miles Seaton has been documented by Brooklyn Vegan. As it turns out, Seaton is actually a big fan of MItB. Their music was highly influential to him as a teenager in the ’90s and is part of the reason he is even involved in music. The use of the logo was intended as an homage to a band he thought was long-since defunct. Due to the mediation of Lawrence, Akron/Family posted the explanation for the logo use to their facebook. No disrespect was ever intended and, while initially in the wrong, Seaton has admitted to the mistake and made amends.

As for the “work” of Eric Wood’s I mentioned earlier, apparently the logo isn’t all that original after all. In this interview with VICE he explains how the skull came to be.

 I went to a library, found the skull in some medical journal, flipped it, made all the fonts super bold and brutal, and that was it.

So was Wood raging about the plagiarism of his plagiarism?

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. zoot aloors says:

    Such an amazing article Zamm, but….
    There is Monetary Justice, and there is Artistic Justice. What those editors did to an American literary Giant like Mark Twain, dude, it is like painting over Adam & Eve’s nads on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. There’s a false equivalence in your argument, in that, no one can negotiate with a dead man. I feel he’d want somebody to protect his work from fundamentalists and others who would prefer to distort history.

    No disrespect, man, just my angle on a tough subject.

  2. I don’t think they’re doing any disrespect to Mr. Twain. They’ve stated in the publication that theirs is not the original version. Take ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’, the ‘Lord of the Rings’ films or ‘A Game of Thrones’ TV series. They are personal adaptations. Nobody would expect Peter Jackson to follow Tolkien’s original manuscript word for word. It couldn’t be done.

    Also, I’d say yours is the false equivalence. Publishing a variance of an original work doesn’t wipe the original from existence. Painting over the Sistine Chapel would.

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