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Mass Productions for the 3rd Millennium

Plagiarism®: The World is New

In the early days of our group, we used to hoist high the flag of ‘Plagiarism®’, going so far as to write this ‘manifesto’. ‘Plagiarism®’ was the key plank in our party platform. We wanted to challenge the entrenched view that ideas are real estate to be strong-boxed and protected from unauthorized use. But we were aware of the ‘fair use’ clause in copyright and believed that this clause best encapsulated what it means to have ideas in a community of idea-valuing individuals. We believed at the time (1988 on) that more or less everything should be ‘fair use.’

This meant that we should be able to make our own composition entirely out of a few riffs from a Rolling Stones record, if we wanted. For us, it is nothing less than a First Amendment issue — free speech — so long as our intent was not to deceive the public, nor to dilute the market of, in this case, the Rolling Stones. That is to say, our record would not be mistaken for a Rolling Stones record, and therefore would not threaten their market.

Our acts of ‘plagiarism®’ were intended to be new works of authorship and ethically valid in their own right. In our minds, there were numerous historical precedents that worked against the entrenched view of intellectual property mentioned above.

Musicians in particular had often freely borrowed, or ‘quoted’, from other musical works with no besmirching of their reputations nor outcry from the borrowee. But it goes deeper than this. In some sense, controlling the meaning of an artwork implies a certain control over the context in which it will be perceived. For us, context is everything, since ultimately it determines both meaning and ‘authorship’ of a work. El Capitan is not a work of Ansel Adams’ authorship, but his photograph of El Capitan is, because his lens sliced away whatever he didn’t want to appear in the print, just as a sculptor, when asked how he made his sculpture of an elephant, answers ‘I carved away everything that didn’t look like an elephant.’ This riddle makes it sound simple, but the devil, as usual, is in the details.

Anyway, our challenge to the buttress principle of late western culture was to make works that were evidently quite stolen but just as obviously ‘original’ works of creative activity. Our works are ‘ours’ to the extent that they did not exist before we made them, and therefore we are the ‘authors’ of them. ‘But damned,’ you may say on hearing one of our recordings, ‘if that track doesn’t sound a lot like Eleanor Rigby!’ The pleasure comes from a recognition of the source, and an appreciation for its blossoming meaning in the fertile soil of new contexts. In creating a work like this, we hoped to lay bare the underpinning assumptions ‘everyone’ makes about art, ownership and remuneration, thereby weakening those assumptions.

With the transition in our thinking and a growth in our musical abilities that took place after ‘Music with Sound’ and perhaps has culminated with ‘Matter’, the ‘political’ aspect of our ‘plagiarism’ has taken the back seat. Now, this ‘plagiarism’ is just another tool among many. We have absorbed it and made it our own, so we no longer need to trumpet it, since there are so many working in this vein right now. It’s part of the cultural ecosphere right now, so it’s time to move on, and make a serious attempt to consolidate our cultural gains.

recycled culture graphic

Lloyd Dunn, Iowa City, 1998

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