In his essay “The ecstasy of influence: a plagiarism”, Jonathan Lethem contends that all works of creativity could be found to have elements that have been plagiarized from others, whether the artist consciously or subconsciously committed the copying. The copied part may be a line, theme, or an idea. They are also called many things. In music writing, for instance, reworking of melodic fragments and musical frameworks are called “versions”.
Lethem uses the term “appropriation” to describe how Bob Dylan used lines and titles from film and literature for his song lyrics.
The point is that the practice cuts across “all forms and genres in the realm of cultural production (Lethem)”. Then again, many masterpieces in various cultural genres—like Shakespeare’s plays or Dylan’s songs—were created because the artist has been inspired by the work of the master. Invention is the creation of something new out of something old or putting together several ideas into one new whole.
The concepts of intellectual property rights and the modern copyright law do not refer to a “right” in the absolute sense, but a monopoly of those who will benefit from the royalties one has to pay for borrowing elements from another’s creative output. They could instead stump creativity instead of promote it because they make the artist conscious against infringing upon the copyright of others. A creative work should be a springboard for inspiration into the production of a new work. Art should be given and received as a gift.
Only then could a piece convey an “uncommodifiable surplus of inspiration (Lethem)” among its recipients.
It should be a commons, something which belongs to everyone. Writers, painters or musicians who are being copied should be honored instead of suing the copyists. Artists earn already from their work and they should learn to give some away, like when a poet allows a musician to use a line from his poem. Substantially, all ideas are second hand, unconsciously and consciously copied from somewhere. There is no such thing as an original work, only ones inspired from others.