Support for Brad Vice and a few words on sampling
I want to thank everyone who has e-mailed me in response to my article and Jake's article on Brad Vice's situation. E-mails have been running 5 to 1 in support of Brad, while online discussions I have taken part in seem to be split (I wonder if this difference results from the reluctance of some writers to speak publically about this issue, for fear of being attacked). This also appears to be an issue that brings out the passion in some people, as seen by the comments left on this blog.
What's more interesting to me is how many writers have contacted me to say that they have written stories based on or using parts of other writers work—not to plagiarize the other author but to comment or expand upon the cultural impact of that original work. One professional writer who e-mail me said she based several of her published novels on other's works because, in her words, "Books are made from books." Another published author, who is preparing a new short story collection, says Brad's situation caused him to go back through his manuscript and make sure he acknowledges everyone and anything that influenced his stories (which, for a well-read writer, can be a long, long list).
In many ways, this issue reminds me of the controversy around sampling, where musicians sample another musician's work in their songs. A number of popular artists do this, including, perhaps most famously, the Beastie Boys. In pop music, sampling both reminds a listener of the original work and also lets them hear that original work in new and exciting ways. A similar thing occured in the movie Forrest Gump, where Tom Hank's character is spliced into historic newsreels to mix fiction with fact.
Naturally enough, music sampling is controversial. Major music labels insist that sampling is theft unless the artist wishing to sample a song first gets permission. Many artists insist that sampling is covered under fair use and is an attempt to comment upon the music that makes up our shared cultural heritage.
All I know is that throughout history all types of artists, including writers, have used variations of sampling. Shakespeare was famous for this. (In fact, Shakespeare may have done much more than sample. Hamlet, for example, was supposedly based on a so-called Ur-Hamlet play written a few years earlier by another playwright, possibly Thomas Kyd.) In my view, this type of sampling is allowed because, as Jake says in his article about Brad's situation, copyright law doesn't mean you can't use excerpts from or comment upon another copyrighted work.
The important thing to remember about writing is that one does not create new works within a vacuum. Every piece of writing plays off of and is a part of our entire literary heritage. Literature is a ballance between the old and the new, between creation and modification.
People would do well to remember that copyright law was created to enable those who create—writers, artists, and so on—to make a living from their work. Copyright law wasn't intended to place a "do not touch" warning on the most important parts of our cultural history.