"I've taken horrible liberties with folklore and mythology, but I'm quite unashamed about that, because British folklore and British mythology is a totally bastard mythology. You know, we've been invaded by people, we've appropriated their gods, we've taken their mythical creatures, and we've soldered them all together to make, what I would say, is one of the richest folklores in the world, because it's so varied. So I feel no compunction about borrowing from that freely, but adding a few things of my own."
“To be honest, after our persistent ‘collaborations’ with Goya, we’re the last people on earth to claim the sanctity of authorship.”
The debate about the alleged plagiarism by J.K. Rowling continues to rage. I’m no expert on copyright, but I have an interest in the matter. My creative drive, you see, is in taking work that already exists and making something new out of it.
I make collages. I take images that other people have made or photographed or published and I tear them out of magazines and put them together with other images and words to create new images. Each picture has its own individual atmosphere and narrative. Is this breaching copyright?
I also ‘steal’ great works of art – those of Picasso, for instance – and copy parts of them, then paint a self-portrait into the picture. The dynamic instantly changes. Is this plagiarism?
And then there’s the writing. In my present novel, one of the dominant voices is that of a character I first read in a little-known novel from the seventies. Her name, occupation and age are different, but the voice definitely belongs to that first character. Have I plagiarised? Should my novel ever be published (hah!) might that author rise up in a cloud of lawyers and try to sue me?
I remember reading a book by an extremely well-known writer and being struck that several passages were taken – word for word – from H.E. Bates’s A Breath of French Air. It surprised me at the time, but I don’t think this was conscious plagiarism. I believe that the writer loved Bates so much that these sentences had soaked into her consciousness like an insistent lyric.
Perhaps Jung – like Rowling - would argue that we are all dipping into the soup of the collective unconscious when we write, or make art; that the ingredients are all already there for our appropriation. If every writer in the world were given five hundred words, or if every artist were given five hundred images, how often would a duplicate story/poem/picture be created? There would be similar elements, but each piece would have been channelled through the unique energy of the individual who created it and would emerge as a unique piece. To take the argument to the extreme, every writer has access to the same words as every other writer. It’s what each does with them that counts. And I think that plagiarism and copyright infringement only arises when commercial interests come into the picture.
On the subject of commercialism, I went to see the Van Gogh exhibition at the Royal Academy. Along with probably three hundred others, I shuffled from painting to painting, from letter to letter, aware of the person before me breathing down my neck (no wonder I caught a cold) while I, in turn, breathed down the neck of the person in front of me. The exhibition was moving and infuriating by turn. Here was a man who painted with a single-minded passion, yet who was unable to sell more than a single painting in his lifetime. A man whose work no-one – apart from his brother – supported or rated, a man who struggled to pay his rent and buy his food. And now? Now the world pays millions to see, and own, his work. He is lauded as a Master. We queue to catch a glimpse of the letter he was carrying with him on the day he shot himself. The one stained with paint, or blood.
Which is crazier? The man who strove to express himself as honestly and fully as he was able to and ended up in an asylum, or the institutions and individuals who squeeze every last ounce of value from his work after his death? Or those of us who buy the Van Gogh fridge magnets and the Harry Potter wands? Vast amounts of money are being made from Vincent Van Gogh’s work. Vast amounts are also being made from the work of J.K. Rowling. Fortunately for J.K., acknowledgement came in her lifetime, allowing her to move out of her run-down flat and away from her café table desk. If only Vincent had been offered the same blessing.
Forgive these ramblings: I’m suffering from Writer’s Block in every sense, due to the above mentioned Very Bad Cold.