“Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” T.S. Eliot in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism
Way back in the dark ages, when a Sony Walkman tape player was the height of technology, I was in journalism school and they talked about plagiarism, and scared the bejeezus out of us in Communication Law class. Plagiarism is one thing (and a very bad thing, both as an artist and as a consumer) but sometimes using other people’s words is the right thing to do on many levels.
This week, NPR’s Planet Money had a podcast that touched tangentially on fair use, and for some reason, my subconscious perked up and listened. I don’t think I’m planning any grand literary heist, but if I do this summer, I’ll be able to remember the basic rules. 1. Is it transformative? You can’t steal something just because it sounds cool. You need to weave it into the fabric of your work, and transform it into something different. Preferably something that adds to the cultural discussion that your novel is taking part in. 2. Is it in the public’s best interest that this information, in this expression, be out there? It’s easier to use material from factual work than fictional, but you must attribute. Cassie Edwards was rather famously called out for quoting “large chunks of unattributed material” in her books by the smartbitchestrashybooks.com blog. There is a lot to be learned there about borrowing, and writing in general. A quick google doesn’t turn up any evidence that Edwards was sued. But it does look like the Court Of Public Opinion made a great deal of trouble for her. 3. Just how much are we stealing here? Only enough to make your point. Don’t get greedy and try to steal a whole book and cram it between the pages of your own. 4. An it do no harm? Don’t harm the potential market value of the original work. The stealing should be synergetic – it should improve your work, and make people interested in seeing the original. Fair use is actually a lot more complicated than that. My own extra rules for borrowing a quote include: 1) quote accurately, 2) attribute accurately (did the person really say or write it?), and 3) provide a way for people to see the original, if possible. It’s so easy in a digital book to provide a link. Footnotes or acknowledgements work in print matter. Also, just because you CAN use material doesn’t mean it’s always wise to do it. In Zoe Chace’s Planet Money podcast that I mentioned earlier, I think Rap Genius makes a good case that they create something more than the lyrics they copy – they provide annotations and cultural context for the lyrics. The podcast doesn’t mention this, but I think they also remind the public that the work is out there, possibly boosting the market for the original song. However, they don’t make enough money to go to court over their right to use the materials. It was cheaper and easier (and a win-win) to pay the original artists a small fee to license the material. To quote one of the bestsellers of all time, “What has been will be again; what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9, New International Version) Our job is to cast our ideas and experiences in new words, and make it fresh for a new generation. And when we use the old words, let’s do it careful and with thoughtfulness.