Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Is Originality (Whatever That Is) For Sale To The Lowest Bidder?

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Copy Cat

By Dalton Higgins

I’ve never met economist Richard Florida, he of the Creative Class persuasion, but based on the few soundbites I’ve picked up over the years, he seems to have coined a few urban-planning-cool catchphrases, and raked in some good coin while doing so. One of the main ideas he explores revolves around thought leaders and artists helping to drive the economic outcomes of big cities vis a vis their Big Ideas. A profound concept indeed, even though I’m not entirely convinced his Ivory Tower constructed hypothesis even remotely applies to the interests and daily lives of the Ebony (and hyper diverse) communities I inhabit and serve. Nevertheless, when you’re in the business of Big Idea's generation, especially within this Toronto publishing industry framework, the challenge is to always be looking to convert your literary cachet into cash.

Do you know what your Big Ideas are worth? And who are your buyers? Is your manuscript potential literary gold? Or will your musings end up with a one way ticket to slush pile hell? There seems to be some genuine naiveté in the wider content creation field when it comes to determining the valuation of your concepts. And I’m thinking this might have to do with some of the carbon copy approach to book publishing in Canada, where new ideas, risk taking and fresh perspectives could get ignored in favor of what’s familiar. I’ve honestly never seen so much monotony and flotsam in book plotlines on The Bookstore shelves. Sometimes, when I am browsing, I’ll skim through between two to four books in the same fiction or non-fiction section within an hour that share eerily similar schemes.

In my own scene, there are a few authors who’ve blatantly borrowed my ideas, and might somehow think that I don’t know or didn’t recognize. I am given attribution in one of them. The other one, not so much. Sure, imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, but when did copying stuff become so casual and widespread, and maybe so much fun for the perpetrators of such acts? Hip hop culture has popularized all kinds of things, including the notion of sampling the past musical works of musicians to re-contextualize them for a new time. And it clearly has been all good, so long as the owner of a particular piece of intellectual property is either getting paid, being given proper attribution or is being given a complimentary three course meal voucher to dine at Momofuku Daisho on University Ave. Ok, so I just made up the Momofuku part, but you get the gist. Those artists who borrowed (or sampled) original works and who ignored copyrights in favor of outright theft – think rap trio De La Soul – have had to pay hefty fines and fees.

Given the rash of in your face examples of alleged stolen ideas in music and literature being parlayed into mega sales for the accused bandits in question, you may at some point in time need to protect your own original writing ideas and concepts from the wolves in your life. I really started noticing this trend affecting my own life around 2009-10 when my Hip Hop World book about globalization and youth culture came out, and when academic Marcus Boon released In Praise of Copying, a tome which argues that copying stuff is a part of being human and that originality might be overrated. Fast forward to today, and I field dozens of queries annually from creative types wanting to pick my brain (pro bono!) for ideas about their projects. Maybe it’s because they believe that blatantly stealing other people’s ideas with impunity and without remuneration is in vogue now? I don’t know. I just know that for the few meetings I do take, I might begin these confabs by playing my “brain picking” meeting guests some Robin Thicke instrumentals streamed from my Blackberry over green tea, to hint that there will be no “Blurred Lines” when it comes to who generated, innovated and originated my own ideas. I typically leave little room for people to be the Robin Thicke to my own Marvin Gaye. What that also means is that if you want to hit me up on twitter or FB to try to set up a meeting with me over a beer (i.e. a Heneiken, because I'm Jamaican) to pick my brain about some project that you are working on, please be prepared to draft up an invoice for my services and time.

There are all kinds of noteworthy things happening in Canada right now in relation to people borrowing from written works in other ways, most of which might concern you as a copyright owner (or your intermediaries) feeling you are not being paid properly, if at all, for your creativity and work. For example, Access Copyright have been in court in recent years in a move to ensure that copyright owners whose works are being used in post-secondary school textbooks and course packs are being properly compensated. Not surprisingly, due to all of this activity, the copyright clauses in my contracts and pages in my books have become my best friend.

With the open access movement gaining momentum – there’s a reason all kinds of works in the public domain (where intellectual property rights have either been expired, forfeited or don’t apply) are being reused and remixed 24-7 – and with social media taking over our lives like the plague, it opens up a whole other can of worms. Do you own the copyright to your tweets, or your rants on FB? Can you post whatever you please on Instagram with the copyright police not so much caring? Simply put, the death of originality (whatever that means) equals the rebirth of the hustler my friends.


Dalton Higgins is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist and radio and TV broadcaster who blogs and therefore is. His book Far From Over: The Music and Life of Drake (ECW Press, Oct. 2012) sheds light on the cultural conditions in Toronto that helped create the Drake phenomenon. His five other books (Fatherhood 4.0, Hip Hop World, Hip Hop, Much Master T, Rap N' Roll: Pop Culture, Darkly Stated) examine the place where the worlds of technology, diversity, hip hop and hipster culture intersect. His daily Daltoganda, musings, rants, jabs, pontifications and fire-and-brimstone blather can be accessed from his digital pulpit on twitter: @daltonhiggins5

Click here to read Dalton's archived articles on Open Book: Toronto.

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