“Every Artist is a Cannibal, Every Poet is a Thief.”-U2
It’s funny, but as a writer I can quote the lyrics to the U2 song above but if I were to use that lyric in an otherwise totally original musical piece I would no doubt hear from Bono’s legal team. The same would also be true if I were, say, Vanilla Ice circa 1991 and used a piece of Queen’s “Under Pressure” as part of the backing track for my mega-hit “Ice, Ice Baby.”
(Note: If your memory doesn’t stretch back quite that far Vanilla Ice was sued by Queen for the use of what it considered to be its intellectual property and they won all of the residual profits from the song.)
If you are wondering where I am going with all this my point is that no matter if you are a musician, actor, painter, sculptor, poet, writer or even a fashion designer you qualify as an “artist.” You don’t make your money based on how many hours you put in at a factory (although it can feel that way sometimes as a writer on the internet) but rather you make your money based on your “inspiration.”
So why is it that when so much of what is created in the arts is based on the work of those who have gone before do musicians and actors most specifically get ludicrously specialized rights to their work? Granted, Vanilla Ice should have at least given Queen a credit for the arrangement but does that totally negate the fact that the rest of the lyrics to the song were totally original?
Admittedly Vanilla Ice’s rap was quite lame but be a grown up and just admit to the fact that you know all of the words. Why is that then? Because words have very little value in our culture and unlike your name (in the case of an actor) or your musical arrangements (in the case of musicians) they have very little currency.
It even goes so far that when you are an actor you can’t have the same name as another actor if you plan on joining the Screen Actors Guild. And, as with most unions that have strangleholds on certain industries, if you want to work as an actor you have to join the Screen Actors Guild. So before you pack up and head out to L.A. to be a star make sure there isn’t some homeless character actor who already has your name.
The reason I find all of this to be rather unfair is that while musicians and actors are afforded so many rights to their work (and are far better paid) other artists are not given the same benefits. For instance, a fashion designer cannot claim the rights to the color blue, a painter cannot claim the rights to the concept of the family portrait and a writer cannot claim the rights to a sentence.
As a writer on the internet you get paid based on how many times a person reads your article. Sometimes you get an upfront payment but only once you have established the fact that you have a readership. But there is no internet writers union, no health benefits and I can’t sue anyone when they copy an idea I have for a story.
Just like I can’t sue someone if they decide to write their own blog about actors and musicians who are constantly in the news complaining about how their income is being affected by internet song downloading (note: it’s so we don’t have to buy the whole mediocre album) or the dearth of speaking parts for actors in Los Angeles.
On the last count this all probably has something to do with the fact that no one wants to pay an actor residuals for all eternity for saying “You left your fur Chinchilla wrap in the coat room” in the latest Will Ferrell movie. That’s not acting, that’s saying stupid lines in front of a camera. No offense to Will Ferrell fans.
Now this will all no doubt come across as the whiny musings of a severely underpaid internet writer running on too much caffeine and too little sleep. Because while I could be out marching and picketing or paying union dues I, on the other hand, have to actually write something or I don’t eat. It just might be nice to have health insurance that wasn’t going to be paid for by Barack Obama.