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Derivative Works from Daniel X. O'Neil

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Derivative Works Art Manifesto

Users of the world are presented with fresh, owned content every day. We have the technology, the precedents, and the duty to make new art out of this owned content—the stuff of our lives.

Here's what we need now:

  • A universal acknowledgment of this right to create derivative works from our experience of owned content without regard to the wishes of the original content owner
  • A set of guidelines that inject mutual respect, recognition, and accountability into the process of creating derivative works
  • An automatic compensation system that ensures payment to reward original creators while inducing new artists

Derivative Works Art

Collections, collage, juxtaposition, and other acts of isolation & elevation have a long and respectful history in art. An example that we’re all familiar with is Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup series. Found poetry has a long history in American art. Marcel Duchamp's Fountain is considered the most influential modern art work of all time. It is a derivative work.

Some Principles

Humans own their experience of copyrighted content.
It is beyond cliche to say that people in capitalist cultures are exposed to thousands of advertising messages and other owned content per day. These messages become an integral, irremovable part of our lives. And people have a fundamental right to own our biographies, their experience of the world. We are allowed to make art out of it.

The original owner is not relevant.
No one would suggest that it’s OK for someone else to limit a painter to certain colors of her palette. And it’s not OK to stand at the shoulder of a photographer, stopping him from taking certain shots. And it’s not OK for anyone to tell anyone else that certain parts of their experience of the world (the text, images, and other owned matter that they consume all day) is not OK to make new art with.

Stimulating new works from the lower levels of the content foodchain is worthwhile.
It's better for someone with little money to make a derivative work from a company that has lots of it than the other way around. Not Time Magazine stealing from Newseek, either.

It's good to make derivative works without malice.
We're here to make new art, not to be mean. It would be easy for jerks to hijack Derivative Works principles for jerkism. A self-policing community or a set of serious usage guidelines would be in order here.

Creative Commons has its head on straight.
"Some Rights Reserved": Building a Layer of Reasonable Copyright is what Creative Commons is all about. They are creating a community of the willing—those who look at the existing copyright law and decide to advertise to derivators their terms. The remaining issue is that if those at the higher end of the content foodchain don't seem willing to participate. If everyone can actually get paid, that may go a long way toward grudging acceptance.

Acknowledgment is nice, but cash wins.
Derivators should ackowledge the original content and the content owner should get paid if and when revenue is generated by the derivative work. Basically, a technical system that coupled the blog TrackBack feature with PayPal would cut it. Instead of just letting someone know you wrote about them, you can also give them cuts from anything you make from their stuff. There are other “compensation” issues that are not yet accounted for here—non-revenue increases in adoration, respect, reputation, etc.

What do you think?


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Daniel X. O'Neil: Chicago-based writer and internet developer. I am a co-founder of and the People Person for EveryBlock, a site that pulls together local news and public information. I run dozens of personal projects and websites for clients, and also own half of a poetry book company.


EveryBlock: A news feed for your block.
CTA Tweet: Unofficial Twitter tracker for the Chicago Transit Authority.
CityPayments: Database of all vendors, contracts, and payments that have been posted by the municipal government of the City of Chicago
Wesley Willis Art: Site dedicated to the fact that Wesley Willis was an artist.
Wide Right Turn: An incomplete look at the role of variation in a capitalist society.


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