Copy That

Copy That

I have a problem with copying in general – really it is one of my pet peeves – that goes beyond the theoretical framework of landscape and building called genius loci: that a creation is fit to its time and context, making places that are truly local and distinct. Picasso famously said, “Great artists don’t borrow, they steal,” but I am offended nonetheless. Borrowing is out in the open, transparent, sources acknowledged, whereas copying is covert; it is theft. I have known an artist (not for long!) who stole the work of her students as a matter of practice, people who served others’ recipes as their own, women who replicate hair and clothing styles of friends and the famous, even politicians who co-opt community organizations’ strategies, tactics, and turf for personal fame and glory, to exclude the grass-root originators. Our home and garden are the source of numerous and endless rip-offs, too. I am usually mollified by the thoughtlessness of cherry-picking and by clumsy execution. If nothing else Bruce and I are conceptual designers, which means that each element, every play originates in and pertains to an encompassing idea, and works only in concert with all the others – our choices have no meaning separately, outside the parti. Even so, it irritates me to no end when I encounter imitation.

My husband doesn’t get it – he sees copying as a nod, a compliment, adoption as testament, if you will – “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” I think he comes to this honestly, by trade. As architects, we are always citing precedent, the origins of our new take on things, the principles our new work is founded on, the long line of builders who came before, inventing, re-inventing, discovering, re-discovering, assembling, disassembling, reassembling. This is borrowing at its finest, as an honoring of source, and distinct from copy theft. A better precept than Picasso’s, for me, comes from Sir Isaac Newton. “If I have seen further than others it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” Originality and invention and authorship do exist of course, just not in a vacuum. It is a fine distinction between replication and authorship with attribution, but within our field we know the difference and make the call when we see it: derivative.

Accomplished creatives are undiminished by the work of others, and easily acknowledge influences and inspirations. Here is one of Sam Mendes’s homages to his muses:1

I want to thank Stanley Kubrick for the war room in “Dr. Strangelove,” Billy Wilder for C. C. Baxter in “The Apartment,” Kurosawa for the death of the king at the end of “Throne of Blood,” Martin Scorsese for panning a camera down an empty corridor in “Taxi Driver,” Joel and Ethan Coen for the last scene between Marge and Norm in bed at the end of “Fargo,” Paul Thomas Anderson for the deafening of H. W. Plainview in “There Will Be Blood,” Bergman for the visit of Bibi Andersson to Liv Ullmann in the dead of night in “Persona,” Francis Coppola for the killing of Fredo Corleone in “The Godfather II,” David Fincher for the first scene in “The Social Network,” Bob Fosse for the audition sequence at the beginning of “All That Jazz,” Quentin Tarantino for Christopher Walken’s speech about the watch in “Pulp Fiction,” Woody Allen for the fireworks over “Manhattan,” Clint Eastwood for making it rain at the end of “Unforgiven,” Michael Powell for the moment Moira Shearer steps into the ballet of “The Red Shoes,” David Lynch for the car journey with Frank Booth in “Blue Velvet,” Mike Nichols for Benjamin in the swimming pool in “The Graduate,” François Truffaut for the moment the boy looks into the lens at the end of “400 Blows,” and Wim Wenders for the moment Harry Dean Stanton sees Nastassja Kinski after all those years at the end of “Paris, Texas.”

The written and musical worlds along with academia and commerce, have protections that designers don’t, like copyright and strict rules about plagiarism. And I embrace these ethical standards for my work and that of others, even without legal merit. What I find most egregious is the passing off of someone else’s idea –their intellectual work – as your own, and this gives me no small insight into marginalized cultures’ issue with appropriation. I think it boils down to the same thing – the denial of credit where credit is due. Disregarding a source – and especially devaluing and discrediting it – is no less an insult if it happens at a social or cultural scale.

Of course, with age comes wisdom, and I find my opinions mellowing a bit.
I appreciate more the quiet, slow inter-fingering of cultures, the mutual give and take that is misunderstood, mislabeled, and maligned as assimilation, and also the subtle satisfactions of influence spread, ideas disseminated, and change wrought over time, even if unattributed. Nevertheless I gloat when copying fails. As it does, more often than not.


  1. From his acceptance speech in 2013, for “Skyfall” at the Empire Awards. ( The New Yorker article “Sam Mendes’s Directorial Discoveries”, by John Lahr, September 24, 2018.)
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