All Creative Work is Derivative

An interesting response to the current debate about copyright issues, in animated form:

The title of the video is "All Creative Work is Derivative." I like the video a lot, but it bugs me a bit that the sculpture is devoid of context. Sculptures of people are, on the whole, going to look like sculptures of people. Some sculpting techniques may be similar, but without especially the temporal context, we don't actually know for sure that the creative work is derivative.

To borrow terms from physical anthropology, there is a difference between homology and analogy, and two forms of art, or two methods of making art, could have evolved independently... a lesson I learned the hard way in my very first anthropology course, Prehistoric Art. For my term paper, I attempted a direct comparison - that is, evolution - of Cycladic figurines from the Venus of Willendorf. They may be female figurines carved out of stone, but their similarities in physical appearance belie differences in time, geography, culture, and (probably) intent.

There are more videos and extra information at


baslow said…

"All Creative Work Is Derivative" is one of the Minute Memes commissioned by ( ). The series is intended to counter numerous widely-disseminated videos from the recording, publishing and movie industries which frame copyright as a natural property right and which tend to implicitly rely on the notion of the artist as the creator of works which are entirely (or almost entirely) new.

It is, therefore, a work which aims to persuade through illustration, through art. It isn't an academic presentation.
Nina Paley is an artist, not a professor.

You are, of course, correct that the film provides no context. Sculptures of people will, certainly, be constrained by their subject matter. I think the film makes a stronger case than you perceive, however.

The animation is possible, for one thing, only because many different sculptures depict human figures in postures that, to my Western eyes, seem to be distinctive, characteristic of specific cultures, times and places. These similarities are what make the animation possible. Whether any one such sculpture derived that posture from another I cannot say. It is apparent, though, that they collectively reflect the influences of the cultures from which they drew...and this, itself, is a form of derivativeness.

Then, too, there is the fact that the film itself is composed entirely of images of sculptures from the past. Nina Paley has created an original work of art that derives entirely from past works of art. The film embodies the principle it enunciates.

I'm glad you enjoyed the film. I offer the above merely to offer some clarification of its goals and a perspective on its methods.

Barry Solow,
Social Networking Wonk
Thanks for your comment, Barry. It was interesting to learn more about the video project. We seem only to disagree about the meaning of "derivative."

Anthropologically, reflecting one's culture (in this case in art) is imperative for the success of the culture itself. Each individual within a culture reproduces parts of it, and the culture is made up of the sum of those parts. Innovation can arise, and swiftly becomes perpetuated by reproduction.

I'm probably being overly pedantic, but in my mind there's a difference between being derivative and reproducing culture - where the former involves actually taking someone else's old idea and passing it off as one's own new work, perhaps with changes; while the latter involves creating something within the structure of one's cultural norms.

I still like the video a lot, and I hope to use it in the next anthropology course I teach. :)
Karl Fogel said…
Note that the artist has written about the stylistic derivations between the different types of sculptures here:

Also, there is the fact that the video itself is an illustration of the point it tries to make. While a creative work of art, it contains no original images of its own -- it's entirely made of photographs of sculptures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. All creative work is derivative :-).
Anonymous said…
This was very amusing! I have to agree that derivative, to me, means that one has used the creative aspect of the art as their own. All figurines of people are going to look similar since they are of people, but there is a creative aspect that is unique to each artist. This may be simply the angle at which one artist chose to sculpt their figure. This same angle may be used again by another artist, but there will be differences based on the individual artist's creative ideas, and similarities based on influences from previous artists.

There are clear cultural aspect present in much of the art produced by a specific people during a certain time, such as the grace of the figures sculpted in Greece following the Peloponnesian War, and the idealized figures sculpted during the Golden Age of Greece prior to that.

Take, for example, the post above in which all of the designs by the Project Runway designers feature much similarity given our current culture idealizing those tall, thin body types depicted. They also show how our culture perceives what hominids looked like, which apparently is between Native American dress and something from the Flintstones(top left picture). I would not describe these pictures as derivative, but they share many similarities.
I should also make the point, alluded to by Barry and Anonymous above, that much ancient art was not really about one individual's creativity. Greek pottery and sculpture, for example, usually come out of a "school" or a "studio" named after one person but composed of scores of different individual artists. And these people were likely not considered artists in their day, any more than someone who works on an auto assembly line is considered an artist today.

So the notion of art as something conceived and executed by an individual (rather than a collective) and something that is wholly original is a very modern notion - probably influenced to a great degree in our culture by American ideals of property ownership.

I'm definitely on the side of questioning copyright (copyright-curious?), while at the same time having to work within its bounds to produce and consume academic work.
Patrick said…

To your pedantry on meanings of the word "derivative:" copyright law has its own definition of "derivative," which differs from simple unauthorized reproduction. A derivative work is one with some creativity of its own, but that depends in part on copied pieces from another work. Open-source software and hip-hop sampling are two cases where many new works are derived from old ones without being just copies.

A derivative work has to borrow content, not just ideas or goals. So if I write a new web browser from scratch, it's not a derivative of anything. But if it borrows any significant amount of code from, say, Firefox, then it is.

The animation you linked seems intended to point out that this line is fuzzy. Every sculptor has seen other sculptures and borrows concepts from them, even if he doesn't cast exact copies of (parts of) earlier statues. Every author is also a reader. Every programmer is also a user and student of other programs.

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