In 1964 Bob Dylan released “With God on our side”, with moving lyrics questioning the myth of God’s approval for ungodly wars. Dominic Behan publicly criticized Dylan for lifting the melody to his Irish rebel song “The Patriot Game”. Dylan later admits he must have heard the song and forgotten about it, and when the song bubbled back up in his brain he thought it was his. In fact Behan had exercised the same folk tradition of copying prior art as Dylan, having himself borrowed the melody from the once-popular tune “The Merry Month of May”, an Irish folk song.
We have a strange relationship with creativity. If Dylan had explicitly credited Behan, everything would have been above board. Yet was the artist of “The Patriot Game” really deserving of millions of dollars in royalties, for claiming a song that wasn’t as popular, and that he didn’t write himself? Could we even track down the original creator of the Irish folk song that Behan copied, or should we consider that public domain? What if Dylan independently arrived at a similar melody without hearing the original? Or as in this case, where he had forgotten the provenance of the idea, is he less guilty of theft? There’s often a difference between his moral obligations and the legal ramifications.
This isn’t an isolated anomaly, it’s how he worked: at least 30 of Dylan’s songs were copied from folk music. His success in turn ‘inspired’ many artists – including the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Tom Petty – who may have never heard the original folk tunes. It’s safe to say most fans of bands inspired by bands who were inspired by Dylan, haven’t the slightest idea they’re listening to folk music. Dylan isn’t the only artist to which this applies: our most celebrated artists borrowed liberally from their sources. Led Zeppelin copied from Blues songs, Steve Jobs stole from Xerox, and Shakespeare mostly retold old stories. What we call originality is often a case of forgotten sources: either they’re obscure to the audience, or attribution was severed by the author’s subconscious.
Everything we create is influenced by our experiences: but intentionality matters. If we consciously copy a source that’s familiar to our audience, that’s plagiarism. However there are two ways to strive towards originality from here. The simplest is to do what any high-schooler does to avoid getting caught cheating: rewrite it in your own words. As Dylan’s mentor Woodie Guthrie said “Take a tune, sign high when they sing low, sign fast when they sing slow, and you’ve got a new tune”. High-jacking memes you know work, but mutating them just enough to avoid intellectual property laws, is common amongst business rivals in the same category. A more honourable interpretation of this strategy is to absorb all the mainstream successes in a category, then create something that ‘feels right’, based on a well trained subconscious. The results are similarly derivative, but you can honestly claim you didn’t cheat.
The other approach is to actively research more obscure sources. If you can curate the best memes your audience wouldn’t normally encounter, they’ll thank you for introducing them. For example Steve Jobs taking the Mac’s sleek design from Cuisinart appliances, Hotel Chocolat advertising confectionary like a Vogue fashion shoot, or Kanye West sampling indie band Bon Iver. This is a risky proposition, because the majority of the time there’s a reason these ideas are languishing in obscurity. To pull this off, you need to be able to spot arbitrage opportunities where a meme is artificially held back from success by an accident of history, or just hasn’t been tried in your space yet due to a lack of intellectual diversity.
Of the two strategies, referencing obscure sources is more likely to gain you critical acclaim from experts who have more refined tastes, while modifying existing ideas is a surer way to financial success. The fourth quadrant, creative works that are truly original, being both based on obscure sources and also filtered through the subconscious, is close to impossible to achieve. When you look into the provenance of ideas the ‘great man’ theory almost always falls short to the ‘shoulders of giants’. Either the artist intentionally copied from their influences, or accidentally infringed on prior art without knowing it. Originality is a spectrum: at the very least the artist relied on a shared language and culture to communicate the idea to their audience. Anything that’s too original risks being rejected as unfamiliar. As Douglas Hofstadter counsels: “[We] make sense of the new and unknown in terms of the old and known”.
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