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And Ed Norton Begat Yogi Bear, Who Begat Homer Simpson, Who….

I’m coming to think that the mainstream media just may be coming around. Instead of reflexively bashing any person who copies as a “pirate,” a few reporters at The New York Times are actually entertaining the idea that copying, emulation, adaptation, etc. may be essential to creativity and culture. This is progress.

Exhibit A is the Sunday New York Times piece (December 11) by Dave Itzkoff describing the open tradition in animated cartoons of copying characters and making pop-cultural references. Itzkoff writes: “If nostalgic cartoonists had never borrowed from ‘Fritz the Cat,’ there would be no ‘Ren & Stimpy Show’; without the Rankin-Bass and Charlie Brown Christmas specials, there would be no ‘South Park’; and with ‘The Flintstones,’ ‘The Jetsons’ and the countless other cartoons that it unapologetically cribs from, ‘The Simpsons’ would cease to exist.”

While some might protest that the idea/expression dichotomy protected these things all along (and therefore nothing has changed), I think it’s a big deal that The Times is so openly, undefensively celebrating the inherently derivative nature of creativity. Again, Itzkoff: “In an uncharitable worldview, it’s possible to see Hanna-Barbera as black marketers of animation, repacking properties they didn’t create for views who wouldn’t recognize knockoffs when they saw them. But it’s far more reasonable to think of them as innovators, who…were just discovering the power of the pop-cultural reference.”

Incidentally, the ultimate pop-culture treatment of cartoon knockoffs and copyright law has to be The Simpsons’ episode, “The Day the Violence Died.” A transcript of the episode can be found here. It’s hilarious, even as a transcript. Highly recommended. (If you can find an online version of the actual episode, please post a comment below.)

Exhibit B is the recent assessment by Jon Pareles of the Grateful Dead’s crackdown on music downloading of its songs. Pareles wrote on December 3: “The Dead had created an anarchy of trust, going not by statute but by instinct and turning fans into co-conspirators, spreading their music and buying tickets, T-shirts and official CD’s to show their loyalty….The change [prohibiting free downloads of Dead music] downgrades fans into the customers they were all along. It removes what could crassly be called brand value from the Dead’s legacy by reducing them to one more band with products to sell.

“Will the logic of copying law be more profitable, in the end, than the logic of sharing? That’s the Dead’s latest improvisational experiment.”

Whew! And I thought that Ed Rothstein at the NYT was going to have the field to himself, scolding creative innovators who dare to push the envelope of our shamefully shrunken fair use doctrine.