The Ecstasy of Influence

We can’t stop talking about Jonathan Lethem’s essay in this month’s Harper’s. If you haven’t read it, you really should. Nothing that follows in this post will be nearly as interesting. Go ahead. And this post will still be here when you return. You know you want to.


Nearly every word of this essay about cultural borrowing and reworking was stolen — er, appropriated — from some other source and then cobbled together with a big dose of Lethem magic to form a cohesive whole. Even the “I”s aren’t Jonathan Lethem; they’re Jonathan Rosen writing in The Talmud and the Internet about John Donne, or William Gibson in a Wired article about William Burroughs, or David Foster Wallace on a grad school seminar, or Brian Wilson in a Beach Boys song.

But this is more than a stunt. It’s a passionate salvo in the copyright wars, a crowd of voices coralled together to say, basically: without borrowing, stealing, cribbing, remixing, mashing-up, collaging and compiling — without influences great and small, in other words — there is no “creating.” No hip hop, sure, but also no blues, no Disney, no Shakespeare. No Lolita or “I have a dream.” We’d be reduced to staring at campfires and barking at one another.

So how to think about the joys, perils, and contradictions of influence in our intellectual property age? Lethem wonders himself:

I pay rent with the price my words bring when published in glossy magazines and at the same moment offer them for almost nothing to impoverished literary quarterlies, or speak them for free into the air in a radio interview. So what are they worth?

Jonathan Lethem, The Ecstasy of Influence, Harper’s, February 2007

What are those words — or notes, or brush strokes, or abstract ideas — worth? Who owns them? (And what does ownership mean?) And for how long?

Jonathan Lethem

Author, Motherless Brooklyn, The Fortress of Solitude, and the forthcoming You Don’t Love Me Yet, among many others

Siva Vaidhyanathan

Associate Professor of Culture and Communication, New York University


Author, Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How it Threatens Creativity

Mark Hosler

Founding member, Negativland

Mike Doughty

Solo musician

Former guitarist and lead singer, Soul Coughing

Extra Credit Reading
You can find Greta’s Mother of All Reading Lists here. She spent all day on it. It will make her very happy if you go check it out.

Update, 2/7 12:30pm

Mark Hosler of Negativland was kind enough to send me a few MP3 from their latest album, No Business. I asked him if he’d mind if we posted them on site. His reply: “I don’t give a s**t what you do with them!” Well, this is what we’re doing:

No Business


Favorite Things


As a writer I inherit one set of assumptions about copying or borrowing, or what’s called plagiarism, but as a music fan, someone who adores sampling and quotation and allusion in the music I listen to, and as a fan of collage and appropriation in the visual arts, many of the artists I grew up liking in these different realms were instinctive plagiarists, by the standards that I often see applied within the literary arts.

Jonathan Lethem


I was trained first as a painter, and I came to think of things along those lines, whereas so many other writers come out of either academic writing first, where they’ve written a lot within the context of academy — they’ve written a dissertation or innumerable papers before they begin writing fiction or something that’s outside of that framework — or they work as journalists — they do a lot of stuff within the journalistic context. Now, if you look at what writers inherit from the context of the academy and from journalism, there’s a lot of emphasis put on the ethics of copying. Everyone’s very conscious that to be a proper student you musn’t plagiarize. And everyone’s conscious that to be a good working journalist, you musn’t cobble together your pieces too much or too obviously from preexisting journalism. I didn’t think that way. I thought, to be a good artist you’re probably going to be cobblig together stuff from all sorts of sources, because every artist I admired seemed to do that.

Jonathan Lethem6>


What we think of as open source is is basically culture. It’s how human beings have organized themselves, communicated with each other, joined each other, forged identities, and most importantly, grooved and danced, for centuries. This is basically how people have always dealt with each other. It’s just in recent years we’ve imposed these interesting cages — legal cages, psychological cages, ethical cages — around this level of sharing.

Siva Vaidhyanathan


Then we have, in the public discourse, a blending of anxieties about plagiarism and anxieties about copyright infringement, which are in fact two very different acts. Plagiarism is an ethical abrogation. It’s one in which you violate the norms of in interpretive community or a creative community, either a group of academics or scientists, or a group of poets or songwriters, and each of these communities has its own set of rules, as Jonathan explained. And when it comes right down to it, what we think of as plagiarism, the theft of ideas, is actually something that falls outside of copyright. Copyright does not protect ideas.

Siva Vaidhyanathan


It feels like you’re having this really conversational dialogue with this mass culture that’s being shoved down your throat whether you like it or not, and why do I need to ask permission to do that? No one asked me permission to put up a Pepsi billboard near my home. So I’m not sure why I have to ask permission to take some part of a Pepsi ad and cut it up. In a way, it’s a very common sense argument.

Mark Hosler


The lawyers actually hired a forensic musicologist to go through the tune and discover what exactly had been stolen, if anything. And his conclusion was: well, there is a case that “Shake Your Bon-Bon” is taken from “Super Bon Bon,” however, we are certain that it’s an exact rip of “Shake Your Groove Thing,” the old disco song. So I didn’t get any money.

Mike Doughty


I think it’s terribly important that artists remember to be grateful for their engagement with an ongoing cultural discourse, that they came from somewhere, and their stuff — if they’re lucky — will be entered into the language of culture and become useful to others.

Jonathan Lethem

Related Content

  • silvio.rabioso

    “Plagiarism is necessary, progress implies it.” –Lautreamont

    For the Intellectual Property / Plagiarism show that is warming up, I suggest a few readings and guests. I assume everyone here is already well-versed in Creative Commons, the GNU FDL etc.


    –Anything by Lawrence Lessig.

    –Jorge Luis Borges, Pierre Menard, True Author of the Quijote. A meditation on what it means to be an author written thirty years before French philosophers started asking what is an Author?.

    –Critical Art Ensemble, radical art group. Two chapters from their on-line books: “The Financial Advantages of Anti-Copyright” from Digital Resistance and “Utopian Plagiarism, Hypertextuality, and Electronic Cultural Production” from The Electronic Disturbance.

    –Guy Debord, Methods of Detournement, a brief essay that summarizes the Situationist International’s [think Paris, May 1968] views on plagiarism and piracy.


    Lawrence Lessig (Lethem mentions him in his Harper’s piece): an endless resource.

    David Byrne (another one of Lethem’s references): a big supporter of Creative Commons.

    Super Bonus Reading:

    Two works of literature that employ plagiarism as a revolutionary decolonial artistic gesture:

    Ricardo Piglia’s short story “Homage to Roberto Arlt” in Assumed Name.

    Yambo Ouologuem’s Bound to Violence.

    If anyone is interested in either of these two texts, I would be happy to share my notes and bibliography.

    Extra Super Bonus:

    If you really want to raise the stakes in the IP discussion, you could expand the scope of the conversation to include patent laws and pharmaceutical patent exemptions; in the case of potentially life-saving medicine, these issues become ones of life and death.

  • This comedian’s singing rant about how Pachelbel’s Canon haunts him through contemporary music is a great example of how the parasites always come to feast on that rarest dish, originality, and how other parasites feast on the nutrients of the earlier ones. This is as natural to ecology as it is to socio-cultural processes. We need to remember that parasites are not all destructive.

  • If companies can freely “borrow” and use our browsing and consumer habits, should we not also be able to freely “borrow” and use the goods produced as a result? Why should one “copy”right Donald Trump another?

  • silvio.rabioso

    “Plagiarism is necessary, progress implies it.” –Lautreamont

    For the Intellectual Property / Plagiarism show that is warming up, I suggest a few readings and guests. I assume everyone here is already well-versed in Creative Commons, the GNU FDL etc.

  • silvio.rabioso

    –Anything by Lawrence Lessig.

    –Jorge Luis Borges, Pierre Menard, True Author of the Quijote. A meditation on what it means to be an author written thirty years before French philosophers started asking what is an Author?.

    –Critical Art Ensemble, radical art group. Two chapters from their on-line books: “The Financial Advantages of Anti-Copyright” from Digital Resistance and “Utopian Plagiarism, Hypertextuality, and Electronic Cultural Production” from The Electronic Disturbance.

    –Guy Debord, Methods of Detournement, a brief essay that summarizes the Situationist International’s [think Paris, May 1968] views on plagiarism and piracy.

  • silvio.rabioso


    Lawrence Lessig (Lethem mentions him in his Harper’s piece): an endless resource.

    David Byrne (another one of Lethem’s references): a big supporter of Creative Commons.

  • silvio.rabioso

    Super Bonus Reading:

    Two works of literature that employ plagiarism as a revolutionary decolonial artistic gesture:

    Ricardo Piglia’s short story “Homage to Roberto Arlt” in Assumed Name.

    Yambo Ouologuem’s Bound to Violence.

    If anyone is interested in either of these two texts, I would be happy to share my notes and bibliography.

  • silvio.rabioso

    Extra Super Bonus:

    If you really want to raise the stakes in the IP discussion, you could expand the scope of the conversation to include patent laws and pharmaceutical patent exemptions; in the case of potentially life-saving medicine, these issues become ones of life and death.

  • Good point, silvio.rabioso and thanks for all the references. The conversation could also include the patenting and contracting of GM seeds and animal genes by companies like Monsanto.

    The Decline of Diversity

    by Wendy Priesnitz

    The patenting of seeds and animal genes will ensure a never-ending source of revenue for agricultural and pharmaceutical corporations – and threaten the planet’s genetic diversity

    The Indian Seed Act And Patent Act

    Sowing The Seeds Of Dictatorship

    by Vandana Shiva

    It’s not only about oil.

    Iraq’s new patent law: A declaration of war against farmers

    by Focus on the Global South and GRAIN October 2004

  • Sutter

    Sidewalker, that YouTube clip made my day! (I have to say, though, I have a three-year-old daughter, and the last time I heard the Canon (sometime in the last few weeks) it made me think of her not-exactly-impending wedding and brought me to tears!)

  • tbrucia

    —- QUOTE: when I finally turned to the Web, I found myself searching for the line “all mankind is of one volume” instead of “all mankind is of one author, and is one volume.” My Internet search was initially no more successful than my library search. END QUOTE —- Jonatham Lethem might have had less trouble had he simply typed three words into Google: mankind one volume. The first returned item would have solved his problem. What is one to make of people who are published in Harpers, but don’t know how to do a simple search?

  • materialistfriends

    see also, if you already haven’t pynchon’s eloquent defense of ian mcewan

  • patsyb

    Loved reading Lethem all the more because the title The Ecstasy of Influence echoes and indeed parodies the premises Harold Bloom offered us in his 1973 classic The Anxiety of Influence. Thanks to Lethem for going one step further by embracing influence and turning anxiety into ecstasy.

  • Where does the Jungian construct of the interconnected consciousness of us all come in here? If all ideas really come from the collective unconscious can anyone own them? Of course, if you don’t believe in this, it’s a moot point.

    But what is not moot, is the reality that if copyright laws become too restrictive and corporations become too aggressive about them, it could deter artists from pursuing creative endeavors.

    So, who’s in the mix of influence that speaks to that balance of protecting an artist’s work so that they can earn enough money to focus on art and giving an artist enough freedom to be able to create art?

    On an aside, when do finally get rid of the idea of a corporation as a separate entity from the people who make up the corporation? Individuals shielding themselves from accountability behind the mask of a corporation kind of reminds me of, well, I won’t go there, because JonGarfunkel would certainly snap at me. (She says with affection.) I’ll think of another universal example and get back to this.

  • tbrucia: “Jonatham Lethem might have had less trouble had he simply typed three words into Google: mankind one volume. The first returned item would have solved his problem. What is one to make of people who are published in Harpers, but don’t know how to do a simple search?”

    Let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water.

    If you read his notes at the bottom, this never actually happened. It was constructed for effect. The entire article is a brilliant effect.

  • thomas

    “This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright # 154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.”

  • thomas

    Sorry I didn’t give the back story.

    Here it is:

    When Woody Guthrie was singing hillbilly songs on a little Los Angeles radio station in the late 1930s, he used to mail out a small mimeographed songbook to listeners who wanted the words to his songs, On the bottom of one page appeared the following:

    “This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright # 154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.”

  • thomas, thanks, I love that.

    In the visual art world appropriation is the big post modern thing starting with Warhol doing his Campbell’s Soup cans. Cindy Sherman is a master at it, photgraphing herself mimicing famous paintings or genra movie stills. There was one photographer who tried taking it to the limit by taking photographs of other well-known famous photographs and signing them with her own name. I guess if she signed the origonal artist’s name it would be considered forgery – (especially if she then tried to sell it for famous photographer prices) It gets a little crazy because many people when they buy art are buying an artists name/reputation even more than they are buying the image/object itself.

    In ancient China plagerism was considered an honor. Where excatly the line between plagerism, appropriation & homage is drawn would I think depend on the culture.

  • thomas

    Did anyone catch Studio 360 yesterday?

    The story of the Utilikilt is a perfect example of our topic.

    A Utilikilt–designed by a large-thighed architect–is workman’s kilt. Dickinson, the brain behind the queer hybrid–desired a liberation from the movement restriction of traditional Carhartt pants, while retaining the utility of a tool belt. The old Scottish solution, a man skirt, cured this working man’s constricted blues. Talk about the ecstasy of influence!

  • nother

    “Intellectual property has the shelf life of a banana.”

    -Bill Gates

    Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened.

    -Thomas Jefferson

    I love how Jefferson’s quote translates to the idea (I believe the idea was his as well) that one can stand in a darkend room with the only lit candle while the rest of us stand there with unlit candles. That person can decide to keep the flame for themselves or pass it along, thereby lighting up the whole room.

  • nother


    “In 1998, after heavy lobbying by the Walt Disney Company–which feared the imminent return of Mickey Mouse and other copyrighted Disney icons to the public domain and with it the loss of lucrative licensing fees–Congress extended the copyright term for an additional 20 years.” –Jeffrey Rosen in the New Republic.

    I have friends that have been planning for years to plant signs around the city that show Mickey Mouse behind bars, with the words “Free Mickey!”

    I assume they will refrain from planting those terror-esque lite-brite sings – but I digress.

  • silvio.rabioso

    Two recent documentaries on IP and culture: [trailer on website]

  • OliverCranglesParrot
  • silvio.rabioso

    It would also be useful to give some historical context to the issue of copyright and intellectual property.

    Copyright was deemed important enough to make it into the Constitution of the US (Article 1 Section 8; the same folks who changed Locke’s “life, liberty and property” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, thus essentially equating the third terms).

    But that has not always been the case. Miguel de Cervantes–TRUE author of Don Quixote–had to deal with apocryphal sequels to his magnificent and wildly popular novel. In his ‘authorized’ sequel–note the etymological connection between author and authority–Cervantes has his characters MEET their plagiarized doppelgangers in a Barcelona print shop, thus creating one of the most radical and enduring moments in the history of the European novel. Cervantes did NOT rely on a legal framework to confront imposters…he proved that the pen is mightier than the Court.

    So how do we get from false Quixotes to Cease and Desist letters? As APHOC points out, copyright comes into being with the rise of the Romantic-era ideal of the genius author. [The link leads to a detailed discussion of the origins and development of copyright…the conclusions are a bit radical, but the historical background is sound.] Emmanuel Kant sets these Romantic ideas in late-Enlightenment stone in his Critique of Judgment (1790), where art becomes the product of the individual artistic labourer known as ‘the genius’.

    So here is the true question: if the legal framework of copyright developed in tandem with specific political, technological, economic, social and artistic norms that NO LONGER pertain in our contemporary society, WHY do we feel so attached to them?

  • silvio.rabioso
  • I love this topic and can’t wait to listen. But I think we disregard (or rebuke) literary critic Harold Bloom at our own expense. After reading Lethem’s essay, I suspect the difference between ecstasy and anxiety deserves thinking about. Both ecstasy and anxiety reflect the Romantic intensity of the creative act; both are Dionysian.

    There are, for example, sections of Lethem’s essay (or whoever’s essay it might be) that are not so different from a Bloomian outlook. For instance, Lethem writes, “active reading is an impertinent raid on the literary preserve. Readers are like nomads, poaching their way across fields they do not own…” I recall Bloom saying once (to Christopher Lydon) that reading is “taking back what is already your own,” as though readers (like critics and artists) are continually engaged in a struggle for ownership. It’s not so surprising that some readers and artists would be more successsful at this than others.

    For sure, established artists and industry people currently feel an anxiety in regards to the control and maintainance of their copyright “preserves.” Yet the ecstasy of success is surely a part of the larger narrative—a narrative that is inevitably preceeded by the agony of creative struggle, a struggle Letham is as engaged in as I in trying to make the above case.

  • Ben

    One thing I find troubling in determining fair use, influence, plagiarism, homage, or whatever we would label situational exchange of ideas is that something fundamental has changed over time, especially in the last ten years. The quality of the mechanical copy can rival or equal an original work in a way that was not the case at the onset of mechanical mass production. The copy can have a lifetime of use equal to or even exceeding the original work. High quality reproduction is very accessible to many and continues to become more so, where it used to be very limited to a few with means. By extension, authenticity is in question more than ever, as is the larger societal valuation of the work of any author or producer of original works. I am curious to know how the generation of tomorrow’s ability to (re)create (as opposed to the ability to duplicate) will be affected by our new tools.

  • Forgive me Andrew K but…

    I love the difference between ecstasy and the creative act. Sections are not so different than others. The ecstasy of success is surely preceeded [sic] by the agony of struggle.

  • Given the almost automatic extensions of intellectual property protection (very little published in the US since the 1920s has ever been allowed to lapse into the public domain) the time may be ripe for an institution whose sole purpose is to identify important works, purchase their rights and retire them into the public domain. What often happens is that these rights are too vaulable, in potential, to let go, but not valuable enough to warrant a new edition or release. Huge swaths of the creative wealth of society is simply not available. Such an institution would create a market for these marginal properties and might be adopted a source of revenue for cash-poor rights-holders. Creators of new works could designate all or part of new properties to the public domain for tax consideration. They could bequeath their works to the public domain on their death, or after a given period of time. I think of the great number of works commissioned by arts institutions, performed once, or for a season, and never staged again. This could be a means to both recover some value for the commissioning entity, and ensure that the work would not be lost in the vault.

    In a Morning Edition story today, it was said that advertisers paid half a billion dollars last year for rights to popular music to use in their messages. They might find it cheaper to contribute to an institution that puts back-catalogs of song rights into the public domain, creating a pool of material they could draw on feely.

  • Dave Morello

    I would never have seen an Ingmar Bergman film if it were not for Woody Allen’s “Love and Death”. Nor would I know who Clarence Ashley or Dock Boggs were if it weren’t for Bob Dylan. I wouldn’t own any Jimmy Smith records if the Beastie Boys hadn’t sampled him on their records.

    I think of all this as tradition: someone showing me something that I didn’t know existed.

    As far as those annoying movie ads. How can “pirating” a movie be considered stealing, but charging me $12.00 for a bucket of popcorn and a 12oz. bottle of water okay? But I suppose that’s another subject…

  • mt

    I thoroughly enjoyed the essay. A few things:

    Ben: Your question about the technologies of duplication is interesting, and I think, sheds light on what is essential in this matter. When, for instance, a Monet painting is determined to be a forgery, it is obvious that that artifact, while amazing in its quality, is in no way comparable to the original. But now, there are oil paint processes that operate like an inkjet printer and are able to reproduce an oil painting EXACTLY. Or take an easier example, a CD is a perfect copy of the original.

    So what does this mean? I believe that Lethem wants to say that technologies are beside the point. He explains this by showing how we may understand the intrinsic value of a work of art in terms of two economies, the gift economy and the market economy. While the two often work together (we may employ an artist to create a mural on the side of a building, and he takes our money and lives off of it), it is the overwhelming tendency of a market economy to maximize profit. And what better way to maximize profit than to sell more product? If you can sell one piece of artwork, you could sell 10 of the same. Does the mere selling of it diminish its value? His answer is: Not necessarily.

    “The cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange is that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, whereas the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection.”

    I believe that Lethem is correct to a point, but not radical enough in drawing the distinction between the gift and the commodity. Let me try to radicalize this distinction. The value of a commodity is determined by market forces (supply and demand), and therefore its intrinsic value is zero—all value is extrinsic to the thing itself. Also, the creative origin remains completely superfluous to its owner and its value.

    The gift, on the other hand, seems to invert the structure of the commodity. The author/artist is in some way important (even the anonymous artists of cave paintings are important, and they stand for the people as a whole). Its origin is important—time, place, political situation, personal suffering—the list of categories could well be infinite. Even a lack of origin is important, say, for an artifact that is called “mysterious.” What seems to matter here, is that there is some intrinsic value of a work of art—but not that only. Lethem calls our attention to this fact:

    “…but a gift conveys an uncommodifiable surplus of inspiration.”

    The key word here is “Surplus”. The work of art seems to have more to it than what is intrinsic, however, not in the same way that the commodity is constituted from without. Surplus would seem to imply an excess from above, from a source unknown, whose value cannot be calculated.

    There is no shortage of ways to deal with this phenomenon throughout the tradition of thought. Socrates had called this source his “daimon”—a mysterious divine source of inspiration from which a thought or thing of beauty springs. In the “Ion” Plato shows Socrates questioning a young rhapsode (a poet who is renowned for memorizing and reciting Homer and other poets in a contest), asking him what or who is the true source of poetry. It can’t be the poet alone, because the beauty and depth of poetry would seem to exceed human capacity. To make a long story short (the “Ion” is short anyway), there appears to be some kind of dynamic of giving and receiving that occurs between the divine and the poet.

    There are numerous other examples from other thinkers, but what is important here is that the work of art is related to an excess that can only be described in terms of a gift. (Jean-Luc Marion has written extensively on this topic, if anyone is interested.) The commodity cannot, and has a far more limited mode of existence. So what, precisely, is the status of my Tom Waits CDs? They are, after all, mass-produced. If I comprehend the work of art strictly terms of commodities, the media (CD itself) and the “content” (the digital information imprinted on the CD), comprise the whole of the product. This product is owned by somebody, and since they own it, they can sell it. But if the work of art exceeds the commodity, then, Lethem shows clearly, any and all frameworks of ownership (and the laws that operate within them) are inadequate to describe them.

    Silvio pointed out the historical roots of the notion of intellectual property. He says:

    “So here is the true question: if the legal framework of copyright developed in tandem with specific political, technological, economic, social and artistic norms that NO LONGER pertain in our contemporary society, WHY do we feel so attached to them?”

    So we appear to be in a post-modern, Open Source epoch. Is Letham advocating removing protection from software? Is Microsoft expected to work for free? No—it appears that the thrust of Letham’s article wishes to call to our attention the difference between a commodity, which Microsoft sells, and a work of art, which Island Records sells. Acknowledging that distinction immediately problematizes the assumption that everything is for sale, and anyone can own anything. This problematic, I believe, is one essential stumbling-block which our culture must encounter, if we are to have a transformed awareness of art not as something to buy, or as a status symbol, but as having something to do with us as people (think Socrates’ daimon….). WE are what is at stake in the flourishing or decay of art.

  • Lumière

    Copyright is an economic/legal consideration – it doesn’t prohibit you from stealing anything – it penalizes you for making money from the theft or causing a loss to the property holder.

    Schools can distribute materials without violating copyright. PBS is exempt from copyright. Ken Burns can use something you created and not even tell you!

    If you think theft is ok, please post your address. I’d like to come by and peruse your possessions – don’t worry I will use them creatively !

  • Lumière

    “….NO LONGER pertain in our contemporary society…”

    Did the author explain how they arrived at that conclusion?

    I can imagine someone in another country trying to understand why America produces so many movies, music, and ethical drugs concluding that the copyright laws might have something to do with the innovation, invention, and creativity of America.

    Content has been mass produced and distributed for a long time the only thing that has changed is the ability of ‘contemporary society’ to reproduce it – i.e. steal it.

    The theft has nothing at all to do with motivating innovation, invention, and creativity. The argument is ludicrous that, if ‘contemporary society’ are allowed to steal, there will be more innovation, invention, and creativity.

    Artists are ‘influenced’. Nonetheless, the best thing for an artist, is to know, by way of their creation, that they are ALONE in the world.

    I just found this thread today, so I am sorry I missed the reading assignments – although I would have probably stolen the books….

  • Lumière

    You cannot copyright an idea:

    ///“He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine;..”\\\

    The owner suffers and the opportunity cost of not making a sale:

    ///…no longer is available to its owner, while the appropriation of an article of “intellectual property” leaves the original untouched..\\\

    The number of copies is irrelevant to copyright law:

    ///…to find and count, so they made a useful benchmark for deciding when an owner’s rights had been invaded.\\\

    The article is riddled with nonsense – this is final blow:

    ///By doing so they make the world smaller, betraying what seems to me the primary motivation for participating in the world of culture in the first place: to make the world larger.\\\

    Banality makes the world endlessly large.


  • nother

    You may not want to go down this road but what boils my blood with respect to intellectual property is health care, Aids drugs in particular. The most important intellectual rights battles of our lifetime are between big drug companies and third world countries attemting to make generic copies.

    Here’s an example from the Boston Globe:

    “new antiretrovirals cost as much as $17,000 per patient per year in Brazil. Old generic drugs cost hundreds of dollars per patient annually.The soaring prices have sparked a national debate over the sustainability of the taxpayer-funded program and over Brazil’s right to begin making generic copies of critically needed medicines. A battle is brewing among activists, health officials, and pharmaceutical companies that will have global implications for intellectual property rights and the future of AIDS treatment in rich and poor nations alike.”

    A few of the very poorest countries have been helped “Under a 2001 World Trade Organization declaration, any country may copy patented drugs if its government deems it necessary to protect public health.”

    But Is there an implied threat from US corporations to most of the countries in the lower teir?

    “The United States has trade regulations allowing it to retaliate against any country imperiling the business of a US company. If Brazil produced generics of patented US drugs, Washington could conceivably block Brazilian imports or suspend tariff waivers to the tune of billions of dollars.”

    Here is encouraging news from Thailand.

    “Thailand’s army appointed government said on Monday it had approved a cheap, copycat heart disease drug, the first time a developing country has ignored an international patent for such a treatment.”

    ROS asks “What are those words — or notes, or brush strokes, or abstract ideas — worth? Who owns them? (And what does ownership mean?) And for how long?

    Can we add the word “drugs” up there after the word “idea?” I’m sorry for playing the heavy here, I’m looking forward to the discussion about words – I love words. I just hope we can touch on the full spectrum of intellectual rights. If not with this program, maybe down the road.

  • silvio.rabioso

    Steve Jobs on the future of DRM

    Even though his conclusion is that DRM is not rational and thus misguided, his argument is based in market-logic. Others on this thread have made distinctions between commodity and gift etc. That’s all well, but art is NOT a commodity. Art goes beyond market-logic, beyond the recently-developed human ‘science’ called economics, just simply BEYOND. Art is part of the spiritual-religious-liberating realm of human activity: it allows us to imagine other worlds, to signal danger and hypocrisy in our own world, and to participate in the creative act.

    We should not let a very specific market-driven logic monopolize our thinking about art, just as we should not let a very specific artistic movement concerned with reproduction and accumulation of commodities (i.e. Pop Art) monopolize our definition of what art is.

    Remember, long before humans had minted the first coin, long before our ancestors had organized the first bazaar, we were painting on walls, singing and telling stories.

  • Lumière

    One needs to understand how the drug system works in terms of risk/reward. Look where drugs are invented – I would bet most are invented here or by US companies abroad – the system works.

    Show me a country that doesn’t protect property and has the innovation, invention, and creativity of the US.

    The system is a power structure so people are duty-bound to attack it – I am suggesting that it be left alone if it works – this applies to the copyright system.

    Chris Moukarbel, who stole the WTC film for a master’s thesis, wasn’t thinking much when he did it. He has said on other blogs, he doesn’t care – he is a sculpture, not a film maker. This is the kind of careless banality that Lethem wants to encourage.

    Though I can’t speak to ‘Fair use for the purpose of political commentary’ in copyright law, I can say that I wasn’t trying to address this law with regard to appropriated works. I was using appropriation as a strategy to make a statement about power. – Chris Moukarbel

    If artists (I am an artist and all my friends are artists) get together and say: stop copyright protection – that is their prerogative. Contemporary society has a sprawlmart mentality – they want their art cheap and convenient.

    I don’t do ad hominem attacks, but Jonathan Lethem deserve one. His article is full of opinion and, as we learn on the Spinoza thread, opinion is the lowest form of understanding.

    Ps. I got the word sprawlmart from the Simpsons, but a word or an idea is not copyright-able – so I didn’t have to steal it.

  • peggysue mentioned that in ancient China plagiarism was considered an honor. It would be interesting to look at what fundamental differences were in place in their society that would allow for such a perspective of appreciation rather than fear.

    When we talk about these copyright protections we are talking about fear. Either fear that the artist can’t earn an income – although, it’s seems that it is really fear that the distribution companies behind the artist won’t earn an income – or fear that the artist won’t be recognized.

    The U.S. decided a long time ago to be a market -based democracy. This is not a democracy of the people. It is a democracy of the money. It doesn’t seem to be something we want to question. Yet, for this society to be open to open exchange is to ask it to take a baby step away from that ideology. The rhetoric in the US is that we have the best model for society that has ever been seen in human history. To suggest changing, even tweaking that model is to evoke fears of the dreaded “socialism” or “communism”. Yet, there is so much that is not serving society. Nother is right to suggest that we look at the ill named health care industry – which doesn’t care so much about the health of people as it does about the health of it’s portfolio. We clearly don’t believe that health – something basic that you need if you are to participate in a market economy – is an inalienable right. Moreover, we have deemed it acceptable to watch people suffer when we have the means to address that suffering.

    What kind of shifts would it take for this society to recognize that the healers among us – which includes artists – should be provided for by the commons? Only then can these artistis – which includes healers – feel free to pursue their craft in service of society and without fear of starving. (of course, it brings up the question of who qualifies, but it’s simply the beginning of a consideration.)

  • Lumière

    There are no movements after Modernism – understood by most art critics and art historians: post-modernism is not a movement.

    More of Mr. Lethem’s erroneous opinions……

    Ps. Prior post should say: “he is a sculptor” not “he is a sculpture”

  • Art may or may not be a commodity, but rights certainly seem to be. What’s fair or even desirable is trumped by what’s legal; every time a new technology comes up against property rights law in court, property rights win. We can decry the fact, or cheer, but I am more concerned with the practical difficulties of creating new work that includes or references protected content.

    As a case study, I produced a piece for radio broadcast that included a protected work from 1968. The text was long out of print from a European publisher, the music was composed by a living composer who was interviewed for the piece, but rights to the composition lay with his publisher. Rights to the performance of the text and music lay with the record label. For broadcast, none of this was a problem. Our BMI ASCAP agreements covered the use on air. But in order to archive the audio online, I needed separate permissions from all of those rights holders, and to put the piece into our podcast feed, I needed different permissions. The practical result is that the same content was legal or illegal, depending on the distribution platform, a distinction that makes a multi-platform approach to media impractical.

  • For the reading list: Malcolm Gladwell’s brilliant “Something Borrowed” in the November 22, 2004 issue of The New Yorker.

  • nother
  • nother
  • nother

    “The basic unit of contemporary art is not the idea, but the analysis of and extension of sensations…” – Susan Sontag

    Dj Spooky is my favorite guide when it comes to intellectual property and art. He is an educated man of philosophy who’s mission is to make people dance.

    Check out his thoughts on sampling here.

    “All I can say is that in this era of hypermodernity, the current message has been deleted. Any sound can be you. It is through the mix and all that it entails – the re-configuration of ethnic, national, and sexual identity – that humanity will, hopefully, move into another era of social evolution.”

  • Lumière

    ///Malcolm Gladwell’s brilliant “Something Borrowed” in the November 22, 2004 issue of The New Yorker.\\\

    Interesting article – mostly about plagiarism.

    In terms of copyright,

    Art turns ideas into a ‘work‘ by order-ing or structuring the ideas. The work is what is copyright-able.

    “At issue was simply whether the Beastie Boys were required to ask for that secondary permission: was the composition underneath those six seconds so distinctive and original that Newton could be said to own it? The court said that it wasn’t.”

    The six notes represent an idea – they are not identifiable as a distinctive and original work until they become part of a whole.

    Lewis’ life story is the structure that was plagiarized.

  • Lumière

    Wouldn’t you know it:

    DJ Spooky’s Best of 2006, “A Guide for the Perplexed”

    Jonathan Lethem’s Promiscuous Materials Project. As usual, Letham is doing something cool and interesting. Here, you can remix and adapt storylines he’s made up and released under the Creative Commons banner. Smart, dynamic, and above all, hey, it’s from a writer who really embodies what Picasso said so long: minor artists copy, great artists steal! At $1 a piece, these stories are a real steal.

    Thanks for the link – a huge fan already…

  • Lumière

    Jobs’ main motivation:

    And since 97% of the music on the average iPod was not purchased from the iTunes store, iPod users are clearly not locked into the iTunes store to acquire their music.

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  • It seems to me that in the history of copyright, the people concerned with protection have not been the creators, but the distribution companies that hope to make money from someone else’s creation.

    Is this a correct assessment?

    And, if so, why are those who are not doing the creating being able to control the works of those that are doing the creating? My guess is that the creators don’t have the mechanisms or desire to do the distribution so they turn over their works. Is it possible that in the age of hyper-communication and ready access that we’ll see a little more of the artists or their collaboratives doing their own distribution and by-passing the corporate market? Would this lessen the tension around copyright?

  • Ben

    While the biggest suck of the digital world is how it provides way too many opportunities for manufacturers to isolate and divide their patrons by enforcing proprietary relationships between ideas and tools (ie: you can only drive on iRoads with an iCar), it seems what Jobs proposes is a gross simplification based solely on marketing of technology rather than ideas or creative works. As models of distribution become entirely electronic disembodied performances freely traded among consumers rather than physical souvenirs, how does Jobs (or anyone else) propose artists and artisans generate income for their efforts? In 20 years who is going to be buying these shiny little disks and how often will they leave the comfort and quality of their personalized entertainment for live or alternative performances? Technology is bringing about a sea change. Ideas are and should always be free. A creative work isn’t only an idea; it is the execution of an idea – it is a performance, a labor, and a property of the creator to do with as they must.

    As far as Jobs giving a big fat middle finger to the media industry, who can’t admire that? Have a quick look at the great Steve Albini article at the negativland site. It’s impossible to sympathize with the big four.

  • Lumière

    I have a friend who is s singer-songwriter -she does it all herself -makes a living at it – no tour bus

    Sending her the link – amazing budget info

  • What a delight to have Mark Hosler on the show! Do that more often.

  • Lumière

    who next – Joe Frank?

  • mattmattus

    This subject is timely, as my new book ‘BEYOND TREND – The challenge of innovating in the over-designed world” (F&W Publications/HOW Books), enters final editing before being published later this year. As both a designer and a future thinker, the challenge that all creatives face when asked to define the future has become more of an excercise in defining ones influences, rather than ones invention and original thought.

    Cuturally, we humans may have reached a point in time where repurposing and revisiting past movements and styles have become the norm. Can you define what movement we currently are in? Why does today look more like 1967 than 2007. Yes, one may say that modernism ended in 1975, after all, what is more modern than minimalism? Think about it…an iPod would not be out of place on a Storm Trooper. We live in a mid-century modern world. If this is 2007, where is my jet pack?

    We may be sick of terms like retro and vintage, but creatives are starving for content, and our cultural library is restricted to what can be imagined. The reality of layered influences from multiple historical sources forms todays aesthetic, but we may need to examine deeper, for it’s not as simple as a mere recipie – for we all know good chefs, and bad. Originality is better measured by ones talent, and talent is defined not through ones capacity to assemble, but through ones gift of editing and selection. Talent, may be evaluated by ones visual playlist, ones assemblage, ones library of influence – what they choose, what they edit, what they deem as valuableand what they discard as not informing thier creative process. Be it chef, composer, painter, writer – one influences is perhaps more important than ones technical talent. I can buy a Photoshop for Dummies book, but that doesn’t make me an artist. Our tools are no longer proprietary, but how and what our mind chooses, is. That is the gift.

    Creating has become more difficult. Creative visual artists typically looked to the zietguist contemporary art shows for influence, but the future appears bleak for even influence seeking …..Adam D. Weinberg and Alice Pratt Brown said it best in the Foreward to the 2006 Whitney Biennial ” Today’s artistic situation is highly complex, contradictory and confusing. It is an environment few can make sense of. ..the current state of affairs seems more complicated than ever given the sheer number of working artists and the morass of seemingly conflicting styles, conceptions and directions.”. No big vision expressed here!

    This bleak analysis may paint a muddy picture for the future of originality, but the optimist in me believes that the answer may lie in our capacity….we just need to catch up with technology…. culturally, we are not entering a phase of constant repurposing, but instead, we are at the beginning of a new cultural florescence, given the fast growth of technology and information sharing changing our perceptions and scope – we just need time for our intellect to catch up with technology – before we see original expression emerging once again. The worlds leading architects like CoopHimmelb(L)au are exploring these new paradigms, surely, all is not invented yet.

  • Lumière

    This is alarmist – where is the evidence of the assertions they are making?

    They say that in the past musicians ‘covered’ songs

    That still happens !!

    Mark Hosler’s no business !

  • OliverCranglesParrot
  • pmm

    I think there’s a huge parallel here to classical music, too. As a classical singer, I’ve listened to famous sopranos’ interpretations of ornamentation in arias and art songs. I’ve “borrowed” stylistic choices from Renée Fleming and Natalie Dessay dozens of times, but it’s not plagiarism–it’s the creation of new art from older pieces.

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    Steve Reich‘s early work: It’s Gonna Rain Brother Walter is gonna want some points for the ganking! I’m going to gank-proof my mind bark with duct tape…co-opt the gank, gank the gankers…I’ve had three original thoughts and it turns out four of them have been done before…

  • I find Negativland ultra-attractive. Give me the Mermaid!

  • Lumière

    Doughty was a joy…

  • This was about as apropos a show for me as I could imagine. I am working on album for the RPM 2007 challenge (record an album in 28 days of February), and was struggling today with the use of very complete loops and sounds in a track – it’s completely legal (the sounds/loops are royalty free), but brings up some interesting questions on how my work related to others who may use them – because the sounds include complete phrases/riffs, the quotation and common influence can be quite obvious. The take-away message, at least 20 minutes into the program, is to revel in that phenomenon as part of the creative process…

    Agree? Disagree?

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  • OCP, I ever be able to listen to StH in the same way again. Thanks!!

    Weird Al Yankovic is a master at re-mastering. I wonder if W and Dick have Saddam Hussein (sung to Chumbawamba’s “I get knocked”) on their ipods.

    But I guess that pair has move on from their infatuation with “50 Ways to Get Bin Laden” by Adam Sandler.

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    You’re welcome sidewalker for the StH meets Gilligan’s Island link (StGI). And thanks for the bin laden link. Living in my cave, I’d not seen this before.

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  • R.T.Paine

    The hottest new master of borrowed-mashed up-copyright infringing tracks, in my opinion, is a guy named Girl Talk. His epic pop party jams are an excellent reflection of the nature of the pop music culture of today. It is exactly what pop raised youth of today have grown up on. Apathy to legal structures by Girl Talk and the masses of musicians using samples without permission is telling of the pure, uninhibited nature of these artists and their art.

    His most recent album is reviewed here:

  • M. Hughes

    If we allowed lawyers and capitalists to do to painting what they have done to literary and musical creativity, they would have tried to control and own the colors. We would now be fighting over whether I must pay someone for using Royal Blue before I can put it in a painting I wish to sell. “Can’t we all just get along” (1) and not put a price tag (now they are claiming patents on our genes!) on everything? Careful, you are breathing the air I previously owned….Pay Me!

    (1)-Rodney King, et al.

  • Lumière

    Your colors might be patented and part of the price you pay goess to the inventor – that’s how you get new colors without wasting your precious time

    This show was alarmist – it was a way for an author to keep himself in the media eye so that you are paying attention when his next book comes out – not that there is anything wrong with that !

    I defy anyone to prove that copyright/patent law is hurting creativity – it is making it inconvenient to the benefit of the artists. If property laws were a creative/idea problem, Communist Russia would have been a hot bed of cool stuff b/c they never had to deal with law or property rights.

  • Potter

    Not only the companies; the creators themselves can get wrong-headed. See Glass Artist Chihuly’s lawsuit tests limits of copyrighting art. Chihuly shows a short-sighted greediness, not too flattering. It’s not like anyone can really make another Chihuly piece. That other glass artists have been so influenced by him is a compliment and, too, in the end should help sell his own work. ( How many copied Tiffany?)

    I think I heard Chris mention call and response as in jazz, blues, etc, perhaps also referring to “the sacred conversation” or call and response that goes on between artists through time and space. ( btw see “Stomping the Blues” by Albert Murray for a wonderful explanation of call and response in African American music.’).

    I know from the beginning of the history of the visual arts, and especially painting, the borrowing or quoting from other works of art was a part of the language of the conversation between artisits. Professor Leo Steinberg’s mantra rings in my fortunate ears from years ago: “art is about art”. And to prove it he fascinated us by going through the masters, the greatest of them, pointing out the quotes that he discovered ( and wrote about). This came with a smile from the excitement of having participated in a great detective game, a treasure hunt. And it was always how this “quote” was incorporated and taken further or reinterpreted. Artists pays homage and then add to their (sacred) conversation. To put one’s ear to this conversation enhances appreciation.

  • Potter

    I am trying again with those links:

    For Chihuly :

    For “call and response” :

  • Lumière

    Why do you say:the creators themselves can get wrong-headed

    Interesting situation – does not prove creativity is being stifled by copyright – quite the opposite – the only update I see was early 2006

    – I would bet Chihuly will lose.

    ///”A concept is not protectible,” he said. “Anybody else can be inspired by a basket or a textile.”\\\

    If he wins it will because intent was proven:

    ///The lawsuit alleges that a former Chihuly employee, Bryan Rubino, was enlisted by Kaindl to make Chihuly knockoffs.\\\

    Chris started the show saying in effect: Lethem gave us a window on the creative process.

    Perhaps this was news to some.

    But he began this thread with: It’s a passionate salvo in the copyright wars… — there is no “creating.”

    That was an alarmist provocation and so far, no one has shown any proof that creativity is declining in this country.

    People steal for economic reasons not creativity: the best thing for an artist, is to know, by way of their creation, that they are ALONE in the world.

    When I appropriate and idea it is because I think I can do a better job expressing the idea – not b/c I want to make more money.

    In the Chihuly case, someone was appropriating to make money but he will be protected b/c an idea will not be copyrighted.

  • Potter

    From a NYTimes article June 2006:

    Mr. Chihuly is in the midst of a hard-edged legal fight in federal court here over the distinctiveness of his creations and, more fundamentally, who owns artistic expression in the glass art world.

    Mr. Chihuly has sued two glass blowers, including a longtime collaborator, for copyright infringement, accusing them of imitating his signature lopsided creations, and other designs inspired by the sea.

    “About 99 percent of the ocean would be wide open,” Mr. Chihuly said in an interview. “Look, all I’m trying to do is to prevent somebody from copying me directly.”

    The glass blowers say that Mr. Chihuly is trying to control entire forms, shapes and colors and that his brand does not extend to ancient and evolving techniques derived from the natural world.

    “Just because he was inspired by the sea does not mean that no one else can use the sea to make glass art,” said Bryan Rubino, the former acolyte named in the suit who worked for Mr. Chihuly as a contractor or employee for 14 years. “If anything, Mother Nature should be suing Dale Chihuly.”

    Quotes from the Seattle Times article:

    As an artist, Chihuly has always been a scavenger of images and ideas. He’s known for translating forms and patterns from nature and other media into glass: the designs of Native American blankets, the undulating shapes of sea creatures, the orbs of Japanese glass floats.

    Recently, when asked who wields the brush on the “hand-painted” prints marketed on public television, Chihuly replied: “I start the painting. I figure out how I want it painted, and then there are other people that paint it.”

    The documentary “Chihuly Over Venice” on was very interesting , not necesssarily b/c of the works produced, beautiful though they may be, but because of the creative collaborative process; the now handicapped Chihuly ( he cannnot or does not make his own pieces) depends on his apprentices. He is in fact training a school: his future competition!. Was it not reasonable to expect that his gift to them ( in return for ennabling him,), his inspiration, would be manifested in some way and passed on?

    I do not for one moment believe that “a Chihuly” can be copied. Even as he is apparently involved in creating his work less and less, and as he gets all the credit. The work really is coming from his studio a joint effort Chihuly, Inc., and a name a brand. He signs it, he says yes or no, a little to the left, a little to the right, or “okay it’s a Chihuly”. This is not new in art either. It’s his organization, his business and he is acting more as a businessman than an artist when he sues. This corrupts him in my view.

    How can anyone make a Chihuly? Check out Bryan Rubino’s work. Looks nothing like Chihuly’s work.

  • silvio.rabioso


    If you know your history, then you will know where I’m coming from. Then you won’t have to ask me who the heck do I think I am.

  • Lumière

    Part of the problem for Chihuly, and I see very few in the art world are supportive, is that he is a business with huge overhead. He can’t have his employees opening up small shops and chipping away at his sales.

    Most businesses have non-compete agreements with key employees for this reason.

    It is as if the world is saying to artists: you can’t make a living at this.

    Hope the judge is a good one.

  • inkgod

    None of this would be an issue if only no-talent hacks like Mark Hosler were actually able to CREATE something. He may be able to stitch together a Frankenstein’s monster from other people’s work, but he’s not able to give it life. And he has the nerve to call what he does “art” while true artists struggle and strive to make truly relevant contributions to culture and society.

    Mark Hosler presented himself as an ignorant, inarticulate buffoon who makes a living by leeching off of other people’s work. The only saving grace is the fact that he will not be remembered in fifty years; his entire wasted life and career will be absolutely and utterly forgotten.

    Nevertheless, it was sad and disappointing to hear what little respect most people (including Christopher Lydon) have for the true artists who toil away day and night to make deep and interesting work, only to have it shamelessly and irreverently ripped to shreds with the push of a computer button.

  • Lumière

    Siva Vaidhyanathan

    I got all your references.

    If the Lethem article was done to reveal the artistic process, that would have been one show: Doherty, Lethem, various artists.

    The copyright issues should have been another show: you, a lawyer, a judge

    The show, as produced, was an intellectual travesty – my cynical view precedes from that. No need to take my view personally.

  • Lumière

    ///…no-talent hacks like Mark Hostler were actually able to CREATE something ..\\\

    That thought crossed my mind, but I remembered I really hated Elvis when he first came along – I was wrong.

    Who knows what art is or should be – I’m an artist and I don’t know what art is nor do I care to define it.

    I would definitely want Mark Hostler on a show about artistic process …..

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  • rahbuhbuh

    This show was infuriating by the end. Or, specifically, Mark Hosler was. If you swipe something verbatim (not be influenced by, nor cover), cite it. If you sell it, pay a royalty check.

    Text has those magical little quotation marks, Perhaps sound and visual art needs something equivalent, besides legal copyright notation printed as a caption.

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  • I’m with mt’s reading of Lethem’s article i.e. he’s not suggesting Microsoft work for free but calling our attention to the tragedy of an overly commodified art.

    I also read the “Digital Resistance” article left by another poster here (thank you).

    This article points out that the ideal of anti-copyright may not be terribly practicle or consoling for those “on the ground” and may result in the garret artist. I agree with that but feel the article doens’t go far enough in exploring alternatives.

    For me, there needs to be some negotiation toward a solution which is neither having to work for free or copyrighting madness.

    And what if it isn’t about money? Or copyright? Is there a way to acknowledge the reality of intertexuality and influence while at the same time describing some ethical standards? I guess these things are always going to be a little ambiguous.

    I felt really ripped off recently and it certainly did not feel flattering. it wasn’t about money and my work wasn’t copyrighted. I just felt burnt, stolen from and miserable. A very nasty vibe it is to be struck by a “taker”.

    “The way we treat a thing can change its nature, though.”

    I believe gifts can be treated in a way they should not be treated. I believe that even something free can be stolen. Like the land for instance (and Lethem mentions this kind of theft). I would like to be really big/spiritua/postmodern/philosophical when someone tramples my gift and burns me in the process, but I’m just not. Instead I want to protect myself and my gift and show the thief that there are some boundaries – slippery as they may be to situate.

    SJ xx

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