Mining the Public Domain

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As you may have heard, because of a 1998 revision to U.S. copyright law, January 1, 2019 marked the first time in more than 20 years that any copyrighted work entered the public domain. And while we all rush to download legal copies of works by Robert Frost and Edith Wharton, this also means those cherished works are now available to be used and abused by artists of every stripe for our own creative endeavors. So, it’s a good time to reflect a little on the creative process, what we owe our forebears, and what might or might not constitute an appropriate way to borrow (that is, steal) other people’s intellectual property.

I freely admit to being a shameless raider of the public domain. My first novel, Jennifer the Damned, is loosely based on Crime and Punishment (though I probably could have gotten away with publishing it even if the original were still under copyright.) My second novel, Cinder Allia, would certainly have owed royalties to both The Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault if their copyrights hadn’t expired. I’m currently working on my most flagrant act of plagiarism to date, converting two related short stories by George Washington Cable into a novel. It’s blatant thievery… and it’s legal, and I fully expect to be able to say of the finished product, “This is mine.”

When I recently discussed the public domain with some friends, they asked me, “Wouldn’t you be horrified if someone else took the characters from your books and wrote whatever story they pleased?” Of course, my answer is Yes. I picture poor Margaret Mitchell rolling over in her grave at the publication of Scarlett (which was commissioned by her heirs; Gone With the Wind is still under copyright), and the thought that someday, some second-rate hack might do the same to Jennifer makes my blood boil. If I think about the public domain’s potential consequences for my beloved books, I suddenly want nothing more than to remain an obscure nobody in the hopes that my work will die with me.

I am an absolute hypocrite when it comes to the sanctity of intellectual property, and yet it is a hypocrisy from which there seems to be no escape. An author (or musician, artist, etc.) must be granted the sole proprietorship of his creations, or share it only with the appropriate collaborators, not only to ensure that he is paid fairly for the work but to maintain the integrity of the work itself. Yet there does come a point when it’s just silly to continue to extend royalty payments to someone’s heirs. Can you imagine the legal nightmare if we still had to hunt down the rights-holders every time we wanted to stage one of Shakespeare’s plays? It makes sense that there comes a point when creative works belong to everyone. The artists have lived their lives, earned their pay (or not, as the case may be), and they leave us with a treasure that becomes literally priceless. Their works become a layer in our cultural consciousness, a foundation not of bedrock but of clay. Their stories become ourstories, a past out of which we build our present and our future.

Of course, once a work has entered the public domain, there is no way to police who does what with it anymore. If you want to write Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, no one can stop you. If you want to turn Pachelbel’s Canon in D into an incredibly annoying Christmas song,  alas, you can make millions. If you want to reimagine Crime and Punishment as a vampire novel, I might sue you, but only because I thought of it first. The clay is universally available to every would-be sculptor, which is both a blessing and a curse. What responsibility do we, the artists who mine and mold the public domain, have to the artists who came before? At what point should their artistic integrity give way to our creativity, and at what point do we need to rein ourselves in? How do we reverence the works we build on, and how do we build rather than destroy?

There are no easy answers, and it’s unlikely that any group of artists would reach a consensus on these issues. I will offer a few of my own thoughts, but I welcome all of you to chime in in the comments.

      First, it is possible to find a work that speaks to you, but which really could stand to be improved. This happens frequently in music when the cover version of a song far exceeds the artistry of the original. In the case of “Say Something” by A Great Big World, their lackluster single caught the attention of Christina Aguilera, who then collaborated with them on a new version that is about four million times improved, if we use the sales figures as a measurement. She added the dynamic, harmonic, and tonal contrast that the song sorely lacked, and the results speak for themselves. This is obviously not a case of mining the public domain, but the same principle can apply. In my current project, Cable’s stories speak to me, but he made deliberate narrative choices that required him to skim the surface of character development and conflict. Where he skimmed, I want to dive. Discovering a work like this is like finding a glorious but half-polished diamond. The desire is not only to finish the job, but to create a whole new necklace in which to set the newly-polished original. It cannot be done without reverence for the original work; why would anyone waste his time adapting something he thought was terrible? The point is to showcase the original in a new, more glorious light. Yet the process may very well require chipping away at pieces the original author would have been loath to part with, and any artist will bring his or her own unique perspective to the tale. In this life, I will never know what George Cable thinks of my story, and that’s probably for the best. But I can thank him profusely for providing me with the diamond, and hold myself to the highest possible artistic standards in the hope that I can play Christina to his Great Big World.

More often, however, it would be pure arrogance to think we could improve the works we’ve borrowed. Dostoevsky certainly doesn’t need my help; Cinderella has been adapted a thousand different ways, and her story still transcends all our meddling. So why do we bother? What is the appeal? There is an argument to be made for adaptations as the lazy man’s version of creativity, and an even more compelling argument that the appeal is easy-to-sell brand recognition. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies… Cool, I’d like to see Elizabeth fighting the undead. Hey, that Christmas song sounds like something I heard at a wedding… It must be good, even if those kids are pretty shrill. It is certainly possible to use the public domain as a shortcut to success, even when the new work is decidedly less artistic than the old.

But for those of us who profess motives other than gimmickry or brand recognition, there are more layers to uncover. Adaptations can be true art. Scarlett might be an abomination, but the 1939 film adaptation of Gone with the Wind remains one of the greatest movies ever made. Romeo and Juliet is one of those works we now think of as prime fodder for ridiculous adaptations, but it is itself an adaptation of Pyramus and Thisbe. Jonathan Larson’s Rent was based on Puccini’s La Bohème, which was based on the collection of stories called  Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger. The world of storytelling, in whatever medium, would be very impoverished without adaptations.

It’s been said that there are only seven plots in all of literature, so it is to be expected that different writers will tell different versions of the same tale. The human experience is vast and unique to each individual, but also universal. We all experience the same emotions, if not always in the same proportions, and we all grapple with issues like survival, love, and justice, even if we come to different conclusions about how they should be achieved. Every now and then, a story encapsulates some aspect of our human experience so well that it becomes difficult even to imagine that part of our experience through any lens other than the story. If you think about falling in love with the “wrong” person, does your mind not inevitably draw you back to Romeo and Juliet? It doesn’t matter if the “wrong” person is from a different race, social class, religion, etc., or if the real people involved live someplace far removed from fair Verona. Two Indians of different castes have fallen in love and face resistance from their families; can you write that story without being influenced by Shakespeare? Even if an author who had never read Shakespeare made the attempt, readers and critics would draw the parallel. Some stories are so deeply embedded in our consciousness that we cannot possibly escape them.

So, too, some stories become so deeply embedded in an individual author that it would be ridiculous to deny their influence. It is simpler, cleaner, and wiser just to acknowledge our debt. I could not have written a story about a terrible sinner who is dragged by grace toward redemption that did not use Crime and Punishment as a mold; Dostoevsky’s seeds had already taken far too deep a root in my imagination. This type of adaptation is not about slavish adherence to an original, and less still about enhancing the original, but only about making use of the raw materials that beloved stories have left within our minds and souls in order to give shape to our own creations.

That, to me, is the gift we receive from mining the public domain. Every story, every piece of music, every work of art we encounter has the potential to plant a seed in our minds, to become clay for our souls, to help shape our understanding of the world and what lies beyond. The public domain gives us permission to allow those seeds to blossom, that clay to take shape. The law is designed only to affect the works of artists who are long dead. Just as the artists’ bodies decay but then give shape to flowers, grass, insects—or even rats and plagues—their works are left to fertilize new generations of artists in new and unexpected ways, both beautiful and terrible. The real miracle of the process is that, unlike a body, a work of art does not have to die to be reborn.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

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The Art of Plagiarism

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Artistic influence is a strange, enigmatic, and terrifying realm. To probe it even superficially reveals the strands of threads that lead to words like copying and theft. I remember in high school having to learn the sources from which Shakespeare took his plays—Romeo and Juliet came from Tristan and Isolde, Julius Cesar came from Plutarch—and thinking to myself, What a fraud. Why do we revere this guy? Actually, knowing High School Me, I probably didn’t just think it. I probably complained about it loudly to the class. Who could blame me, when the very same teachers who made us memorize Shakespeare’s sources also gave regular lectures about the evils of plagiarism and the penalties that would result therefrom?

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it when, on my very first day as a music major in college, the Assistant Dean of the music school told all of us incoming freshmen that “In music, plagiarism is the highest form of flattery.” He was careful to warn us that this view did not extend to tests and term papers, but it was hard to deny that, when it came to music, he was right. Variations on a theme by [Insert Composer Here] is a very common title. Ravel orchestrated Mussorgsky’s piano composition Pictures at an Exhibition, and his work became more widely performed than the original. Gounod superimposed a melody over a Bach piano prelude, added the (definitely not original) text of the Ave Maria, and, hey presto, Gounod’s new composition became immortal. In music, the line between original and derivative is paper-thin, if you can see it at all. And music is all the better for it.

Shakespeare wasn’t a thief; he was a composer.

I have come full circle now. I not only recant my complaints against the unoriginal Mr. Shakespeare, but I have begun my own project of adapting someone else’s words into a book that I will eventually dare to call my own. I no longer imagine myself to be Bach creating preludes from scratch, but Gounod, crafting a melody that will (hopefully) adorn the extant harmonies with new layers of beauty.

My capitulation to the artist’s role as plagiarist has been gradual, and I daresay it is not yet complete. For a very long time, I have prided myself on writing stories no one else would dream of, crazy stuff like reimagining Crime and Punishment as the story of a teenage vampire, or that weird screenplay where I explored Augustinian philosophy through the lens of neuroscientific research. (Trust me, you don’t want to read that one.) I have not lost my penchant for odd juxtapositions; I’m currently writing about a French countess who confronts alligators and Indians while still wearing her Parisian lace. But I have gradually accepted that my cherished originality was just another form of plagiarism. I did not write Crime and Punishment, after all. The slippery line between being influenced by and stealing from gets slimier with every story, until I wonder what, if anything, I myself have actually created during my tens of thousands of hours spent typing. “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Yet there is value in even the most derivative works of art. Bach wrote Piano Prelude No. 1, but he did not write Ave Maria. No one knows who first wrote Tristan and Isolde, but whoever it was, he did not write Romeo and Juliet. There is a spark within the metamorphosis, a tiny ounce of creativity—not the birth of something out of nothing, but the rebirth whereby something old becomes something new. Even the most innovative artists have only the world for their materials, only existing human languages in which to write (assuming they want to be understood), and only the realm of human imagination from which to draw their subjects. None of us create the clay. We only sculpt it. But in the sculpting, it is possible to transcend the clay, to make an asymptotic approach toward the act of creation as a folk tale becomes royal theater, a piano prelude becomes a prayer, and clay becomes beast, or man, or god.

All art is plagiarized to some degree; it must be, for there is only one Creator. But He, in His goodness, granted us both the desire and the capability to shape His creation, to take the work of His hands and transform it with ours. The longer I spend in acts of human creativity, the more convinced I become that God’s purpose in gracing us with this gift is to give us a window whereby we might peer, however darkly, into His own truly creative mind. If we open ourselves to come to know Him in the act of artistic creation, we can glimpse a few atoms of His genius and generosity. Through our art, we have the opportunity to love as God loves, by giving life to a thought, by imbuing humble things with lofty beauty, as He did when He created our lumps of human clay to become His own children.

I am trying to let go of the pretensions of originality I once held, though as with all human failings, old habits die hard. I am working to be content in my role as a mere plagiarist of the Creator. The act of plagiarism has become my prayer, that I might conform my feeble mind more fully to the mind of the only true Artist.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

The Marian Effect

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Marian Effect

As I wrote about recently, I had the honor to serve on a panel called “The Marian Effect: Building Strong Women in Writing and Life” at the Trying to say ‘God’ Conference at Notre Dame in June. We now a have Facebook page established by my fellow panelist, Angela Doll Carlson, to try to keep the conversation going. We’re still trying to figure out how best to use it. So far, we’ve been sharing lots of beautiful Marian art, music, and poetry, which should be a good enough reason to come join us. I hope to “see” you in our community!

 

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

To Wage a Peaceful War

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We all know Shakespeare’s famous line, that the pen is mightier than the sword. But one young Assyrian Christian boy is proving that the chisel holds the same power. According to CNN, seventeen-year-old Nenous Thabit has been meticulously recreating priceless artifacts destroyed by ISIS.

“[C]ontinuing to sculpt is a message that we will not be intimidated by those devils,” he said.

On this weekend when we celebrate the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, it seems to me that Nenous Thabit shows us exactly what kind of soldiers belong in His army. We worship a king who conquered death by dying; it is He who gives us the power to wage a war through peace.

Karen Ullo is the author of the vampire saga Jennifer the Damned.  To find out more, go to www.karenullo.com.