Thursday, 25 November 2010

Appreciation or Appropriation?

It’s blog time again. Though I do sometimes wonder why I bother. According to the stats for this blog, the reason why most people arrive here by a very curly mile is because they are searching on Google for the term ‘CurlyWurly’.

So much for my highbrow aspirations. West Pier Words will be condemned forever to be known as the blog of the curly wurlies. Well, better than the blog of the short and curlies, maybe, but only by a slim coating of chocolate.

Hot Cross Bun Fight

On the subject of blogs, there has been much heat generated recently by the issue of copyright. It kicked off when Cooks Source Magazine was caught lifting stuff wholesale from the web. The editor, Judith Griggs, defended her action to one who was ripped off, Monica Gaudoi, by saying, ‘But honestly Monica, the web is considered “public domain” and you should be happy we just didn’t “lift” your whole article and put someone else’s name on it!’

Jane Smith gives a blow-by-blow account here. Nicola Morgan and Lynn Price wade in with their cudgels too.

What joy, therefore, to discover today two books that take old books to create new works without changing a word but by removing words.  

 Courtesy of Visual Editions

It began as I followed the scent of a new book by Jonathan Safran Foer, Tree of Codes, published by Visual Editions. The first mention I came across was posted by The New York Times. To quote the publishers, “Jonathan Safran Foer has taken his favorite book, ‘The Street of Crocodiles’ by Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz, and used it as a canvas, cutting into and out of the pages, to arrive at an original new story.”

A Short Detour

Having never heard of Bruno Schulz, mea culpa, I took myself to Wikipedia to discover he was a Polish Jew, who ‘nurtured his extraordinary imagination in a swarm of identities and nationalities; a Jew who thought and wrote in Polish, was fluent in German and immersed in Jewish culture, though unfamiliar with the Yiddish language’.

Something of a hermit, Schulz preferred to remain in his provincial town from where he observed the lives of his fellow citizens in a series of letters to a friend. These were to form the basis of his first book, The Street of Crocodiles.

Schulz was also an inspired artist, a talent that prolonged his life for a brief period when he was ‘adopted’ by Felix Landau, a Gestapo officer of the Einsatzkommando, one of five sections of the Einsatzgruppen. This group was originally formed to follow behind the frontline troops in Russia and clean up the radical elements left behind, i.e. murder the Jews and Bolsheviks. 

The Einsatzgruppen were responsible for similar murderous work in Poland. (For an account, read Ordinary Men by Christopher R. Browning.)

Schulz was shot on 19 November, 1942 by a German officier, Karl Günther, in retaliation for Landau’s execution of the former’s ‘pet Jew’: "You killed my Jew - I killed yours."

(My interest in the subject stems from the fact the mother of my children is a Polish Jew and most of her family on her father’s side died in the Holocaust; in all likelihood they were exterminated at Treblinka.)

A Humment

I arrive back at the Tree of Codes via Asylum where John Self reviews Judith Schalanshy’s Atlas of Remote Islands, which is ‘that rarest of things, a coffee-table book which is actually worth reading’.

The point of relevance is that later, in the comments, John provides a link to an excellent review posted on Tiny Camels of Foer’s Tree of Codes in a post entitled The Politics of Erasure: Tree of Codes versus A Humment.

A Humment is another book I have never heard of. Actually, less a book, more a work of art still in progress. It is the work of Tom Phillips, an English artist who takes a Victorian novel, W. H. Mallock’s A Human Document, and decorates it, leaving words linked in bubbles to create a new story. It was first published in 1970, since when there have been three new editions, though it would be more accurate to say three new works such is the degree of revision subjected to them by Phillips. 

Today’s excitement about A Humment is that it is going to be released as an iPad app. (It’s my birthday soon. Perhaps I will get one. One of each that is; original work, iPad, app. Ha! if Peppa Pigs could fly.)

A Question or Two

I presume both The Street of Crocodiles and A Human Document are out of copyright and therefore Foer and Phillips may do with them what they will. Is this the case, I don’t know?

Even if they were not, at what point does the reconstruction of a copyrighted piece take on the guise of art, i.e. a new and original work?

I referred to this issue last year in a post entitled, Cut, Paste & Copy: A Polemic. As I said at the time, I have written a 5,000-word short story as an exercise in existentialism where I took passages from the works of Henry Miller, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. I am sorely tempted to publish it in the form of an e-book to see what happens. (I would, of course, credit the passages lifted.)

PS The Guardian have just posted on the app for Tom Phillips' A Humment


Girl On The Run said...

But you are always pinching my jokes and passing them off as yours...

John Self said...

I don't think The Street of Crocodiles is out of copyright - Schulz died in 1942, which would mean it's still in copyright for the next couple of years. (As it happens, I reviewed Schulz's book just the other week.) What implications that has for Safran Foer's project I don't know. Perhaps he had the permission of Schulz's literary executors. Or perhaps he was using such sparse extracts, and so clearly for the purposes of creating a new work, that such things do not apply. An interesting question, to be sure.

DOT said...

Excellent review, John. The Street of Crocdiles has moved to the top of my must read list.

As for you, GOTR, Ha!

Ian Williams said...

Copyright...hmmm Legally it is meant to be a straightforward set of circumstances i.e. the copyright in a work exists for 70 years from the death of the creator (no, not Him) with slight adjustments for different types of work.

The reality, as most creators know, is quite different.
Often there is a defence of de minimus - i.e. minimal use of the original in a new work. How easy it is to use that defence I don't know.

Even George Harrison came unstuck many years back - Harrison was sued for copyright infringement over the single "My Sweet Lord" because of its similarity to the 1963 Chiffons single "He's So Fine", owned by Bright Tunes. Harrison denied deliberately stealing the song, but he lost the resulting court case in 1976 as the judge accepted that Harrison had "subconsciously" plagiarised "He's So Fine".

And Graham Rawle a successful writer and collage artist has used the words of others in an unusual way which you can see here: Now there's a lot of cutting and pasting for you.

Right now I am chasing down a couple of people who are blatantly ripping-off some of my old films and renting them for money! I have even found some of them on YouTube. And the trouble is that some of them out there don't think they are doing anything wrong.