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No creation is completely original

delgo2If you think you've come up with the most unique idea ever for a movie, book, play or other creative endeavour, think again. It's time for a wake-up call, as Michela Ledwidge shows that nothing is truly original anymore.

Have you ever watched a movie and thought, “That’s been done before”? For creative people the experience can be like a physical blow. “Hey, that’s MY idea… they’ve nicked it!” The more you create, the more likely you are to have experienced that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach.

Finding your idea elsewhere is not always pleasant but that’s life. You are not a new and unique snowflake. I pinched that from Fight Club. You are not original. That story you’ve been slaving over for weeks and months is already out there - in print, onscreen, everywhere except with your name on it. It is too easy to feel possessive about ideas. Get over it. Kill your babies, as they say in the writing trade. Keep on Truckin’. I pinched that last one from Robert Crumb.

In the long run it’s the how – the development process - that defines creativity and how original you are. What you do with that old worn out concept might just define you. 

Good ideas have an annoying habit of spreading like wildfire. Pablo Picasso famously coined the phrase, “A bad artist copies. A great artist steals.” Or did he?  T.S. Eliot was also credited with much creative thievery. He offered up this quote. “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

Even William Shakespeare, somewhat of an overachiever, is only credited with three original stories. The bulk of his work is unashamedly derivative, relying on stories familiar to everyone in his day. Disney Corporation learnt a trick or two from this one.

Appropriation is a strategy that has worked well for centuries. But harnessing the zeitgeist in 2010 can be a double-edged sword. Imitations and hacks are getting easier to spot and those who have grown up in digital culture, the digital natives, are getting restless. 

Trying something new using old ideas

So how do you try something new using old ideas without being slammed for it? Universities and high schools run essays through plagiarism detection software. YouTube cross checks uploads against vast libraries of digital ‘fingerprints’ to spot copyright infringements.

The answer is to acknowledge your sources but can you cleanly separate appropriation from authorship? When ideas and influences can circumnavigate the globe in seconds, sampling is inevitable. After all, we humans do have a knack for pattern recognition.

Our culture thrives on layers and veiled references. What we aren’t so good at is acknowledging the extent to which media is remixable and therefore giving attribution. Where’s the fun in that? New ideas, or rather perceptions of newness, can be so exciting and can certainly sell.

The record $US10.6 billion movie tickets sold in 2009 makes a mockery of the claim that piracy and online file sharing is about to kill off the film business. It instead highlights the vested interests in retaining the status quo. The Hollywood machine is risk-adverse and terrified of loosing revenue so it is no wonder that it has an issue repositioning the relationship between creators and audiences. In the current model audience creativity simply erodes market share so is a no-go area. 

Avatar v Delgo

As the blockbuster film, Avatar passes the US$1 billion mark in sales I find myself browsing and pondering the striking similarities between Avatar and a 2008 indie animated feature, Delgo.

Produced by Fathom Studios on an estimated budget of US$40 million, Delgo’s claim to fame is unfortunately a record for the worst box office opening in the “2000+ theatres” category.

Avatar on the other hand arguably set a new benchmark for immersive cinematic entertainment. Both films had floating mountains, fierce dragon-like steeds and tiny white umbrella-like critters. What is going on here? Influences, plagiarism, revisioning or all of the above?

delgo1Avatar director, James Cameron is no stranger to copyright claims. Melbourne-based Constantino and Filia Kourtis made headlines in 2002 after winning an appeals court ruling to proceed with suing him for allegedly pilfering their “shape-shifting cyborg” idea.

In 2004 Sophia Stewart sued producers of his Terminator and The Matrix franchises, accusing them of plundering her manuscript The Third Eye. Neither of these cases have been resolved publicly as out of court settlements were made, but regardless of what went on, there is no doubt that Hollywood has its own brand of skulduggery as well as attracting the attention of the odd delusional writer.

We all dream. It comes with the territory. Lawyers and chain-of-title agreements to clarify who owns what also come with the territory. 

Time has a way of blurring the line between inspiration and perspiration. A great idea is nothing without its execution, something that many aspiring claimants to Hollywood fortunes seem to forget. I first read about James Cameron’s Avatar project in 1997. I was writing a screenplay featuring avatars at the time.

Given Delgo’s achievement in creating an award-winning original story universe would it really be any surprise if some of the Delgo creatives later worked on Avatar? Is it wrong to reuse ideas that missed their mark and seek to improve on them? It happens everyday in the industrial world but we artsy types are a funny lot.

delgo4No one wasted time looking to spot Avatar source material from classic science fiction until it became a smash hit. Whether any particular idea was ‘stolen’ or not matters less than whether the new form has merit its own right. Plagiarism cases are hard to call when it comes to collaborative mediums, particularly when not all collaborators are known and especially when the collaboration revolves around a multi-million dollar entertainment property employing armies of people. 

What is certain is that the business of media is all about myth creation. The brand value that popular culture attaches to “inventors” and “authors” is a powerful incentive to gloss over attribution details. Lack of acknowledgement may sting terribly but we live in a remix culture. Rather than deny this reality, a better solution would be to strengthen attribution culture via tools such as Creative Commons licences. 

Over Christmas the normally sedate Cinematography 3D (cml-3d) mailing list came close to a flame war when experts from the decades-old stereoscopic 3D industry were accused of “Hollywood-bashing” for questioning the level of technical innovation on the Avatar film set. Their point being, if not already obvious, that Hollywood gives good hype. “From the Director of Titanic (and a few thousand other people)” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. 

Egos and creatives

dodgem_lg1We creative types can be our own worst enemy when it comes to disputes over originality. When push comes to shove we’re a greedy lot just like everyone else. We like the cash AND the accolades, thank you very much.

Which is why revered comic book writer and novelist, Alan Moore is a crusty old breath of fresh air. Famous for writing classic “dystopia-lit” such as V for Vendetta, The Killing Joke (Batman), and Watchmen, you won’t find Moore’s name on any more big-screen adaptations.

Having written and inspired a good slab of popular culture, Moore insists on being omitted from the credits of any adapted work. The Wachowski Brothers admirably provided a long list of their writing influences on The Matrix DVD. In the film adaptation of V for Vendetta, which they produced, the credits read ”based on the graphic novel illustrated by David Lloyd” – Moore did not wish to be credited as writer.

Sometimes it seems no publicity is good publicity. Alan Moore is still very much a geek pin-up and in-demand writer. He has just launched a print-only zine Dodgem Logic touting the virtues of steampunk authorship over the entertainment industry model. 

The art of taking things to a new place is never as easy as it looks. The blank page is a whole lot more daunting than a lick of paint over last year’s triumph. But don’t let that put you off. A little thievery goes a long way.

Michela Ledwidge (@michela) is an artist, entrepreneur and technologist. She is the founder of production company MOD Films and teaches Remixable Media at the University of Sydney.

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