Friday, March 15, 2013

The Creative Process: A Derivative Work

In art, a derivative work is a work of art based in part or in whole on a previously existing work of art, usually a famous one. It's also called "referencing" and the assumption is that the artist is going to reference a well known work such as the Mona Lisa otherwise no one will "get it." The derivative work is allowed to stand without copyright infringement because the artist who made the derivative work has enhanced or expounded on the original and not simply made a copy of it.

Bear with me here as I review the various types of artistic copying because it relates to a discussion on one of the genealogy boards of late about putting your tree and information out in the world. And I have to confess that I feel a tad sheepish about this post because I'm just a beginning intermediate genealogist and there's so much I don't know and haven't been exposed to. But, it could be a topic/issue worth discussing and so here you have it, and my rather stretched analogy to the world of art. I hope no one, especially the most experienced amongst us, is offended:)

There are two additional categories of art that stand on the tall shoulders of the work of others. Have you ever been to a museum and seen an artist in front of a painting making a copy? That's a copyist and you hardly see them anymore. Used to be that any artist could waltz into a big museum with their painting equipment and plunk it down in front of a famous painting and start making a copy, but not now and you can imagine why. Being a copyist is a legitimate way to learn and the old French ecoles of long past insisted that students do their fair share of copying. In this situation the artist has no right to offer the work for sale under any conditions and to do so is a violation of all that is respectable in art. (And there is at present a lot in the art world that is not respectable.)

There's also another way a painter honors the work of a master painter and that's by copying their master's painting and titling it "Landscape, After Rembrandt." In this way there is no doubt that the lovely scene the viewer is gazing upon isn't a real Rembrandt, nor is it the original work of the person who signed the painting. This route is often taken by students of a living master and with the master's permission, although I have seen contemporary works "after" long dead masters. That's considered poor form and totally unprofessional. To title a work "after", the guy who painted the original must give you permission to make a copy and critique your work, otherwise it's just a cheezy painting.

Then there's plain and simple ripping off and copyright violation. Artists learn from a young age what constitutes copyright violation as regards derivative work. If you do it, it can ruin your career and your bank account as you try to defend yourself through the legal process. Here's a blog post by a painter friend of mine, Denise Rich (not the socialite) who paints cows, and boy is she good, about her run-in with someone who was not honoring her work by copying but simply co-opting her image to make a profit.

OK, so now back to genealogy. The discussion on a genealogy board that got me thinking about derivative work was about bait trees, or trees posted to a web site to attract legitimate interested parties, A.K.A. "cousins", or to lay in wait with erroneous information for data thieves. If copied, the trees with purposeful errors will show the copyist's slovenly ways to all who care to look.

Some of the discussion also lamented the scarcity of those who were willing to collaborate (honorably) and share work and credit. I get that. I feel bad for genealogists who have gone before and posted their fine work only to have it stolen by others without a bit of credit where credit was decidedly due. No respect.

I have no answers here, and maybe I should have told you that at the start so you could have decided if you wanted to waste your time or not. Sorry, truly. But this is a problem, I think. And maybe it would be nice for those with some years under their belts doing this work to give it a think, and perhaps they have and I've just not run into it yet. In all the fields and work spaces in our genealogy program, and correct me if I'm wrong, there isn't a place to sign the work, a place to say who found information and that source. We know how to cite sources (I'm working on it) but how do we "sign" our trees? Maybe we just assume that putting the tree online under your name is enough, but what happens when that work is copied?

We're all told is to do our own work and start all over again at the beginning with a new tree and research every last detail and cite our sources well. That is an excellent way to learn. However, the body of human knowledge, I think, generally does not benefit much from this approach... but I see no other route for people to take when doing genealogy: it's not ethical to "steal" a tree and precious few are willing to share. "Got mine, go get your own." If only we could build on what others have done in some organized acceptable way then we could spend our efforts moving along. Maybe this will be the beauty part of the FamilySearch Family Tree?

Maybe if we could "sign" our work in some fashion we'd be happier to share it, and I think sharing the work is where we all benefit most. If we share the work then presumably good drives out bad as the work gets checked and rechecked. Open source seems the way to go: sign the work, give the trees out and let the chips fall where they may as we stand behind what we did and are happy to be updated and corrected. If I knew who originally found that piece of info and where they found it, and that the finder's name was attached to that place on the tree then I could honor that person... or that person's memory.

Photo of the Day from the Archive:

Eckhart Cemetery in Eckhart Mines, Allegany, Maryland.
Many of my ancestors are buried here. Some day I have to make a list!

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1 comment:

  1. I loved the way you wrote about the copyright etiquette of the art world. What a great comparison to the lack of respect for others'trees in the genealogy world.
    After all these years, I found a way to be open source with my work, yet "sign it" and say "This is what I have done so far. Please edit, add to it and share with others" . It's the collaborative genealogy at the wiki genealogy sites like We Relate and Wikitree. By the way, I always enjoy reading your work here.