Oral Tradition, Pastiche, The Mashup and Copyright

Human beings take information and media, consume it, mash it up and spew it back out again, it’s what we do. We have a fine tradition of nicking each others content from the earliest times of tribal campfires, embroidering hunter and warriors stories and oral traditions, through to Plato deliberately putting his own words in…

Human beings take information and media, consume it, mash it up and spew it back out again, it’s what we do. We have a fine tradition of nicking each others content from the earliest times of tribal campfires, embroidering hunter and warriors stories and oral traditions, through to Plato deliberately putting his own words in ‘Socrates’ mouth, Phaedrus and Aesop’s fables, priests in the middle ages copying out books and adding their own bits of wisdom, and so on. We refresh and update, shedding our own light and adding our own filters on ‘ the classics’, adding value with varying success. Oh and don’t forget book curses (see below).

Note the TWO watermarks for attribution. Good enough to post again “nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change” nor of those voices changing your content.

A passive, rigid, copyright-controlled society not only goes against human nature but stunts us as an evolving species in ways that cannot yet possibly understand. Our comprehension of the world, our emotional connections to movements and philosophies and our will to add our own creativity and expression are amputated. We don’t work this way! This is NOT the way we have worked for thousands of years: and this and last century have a lot to answer for.

I spoke on this at a conference last week, briefly, and I want to throw it out into the Web 2.0 Universe in case you guys can use these arguments when asked “OMG how do we protect copyright, patents, and business models??!!:

Music Pastiche: In the 18th century, opera pasticcios were frequently made by composers as notable as George Frideric Handel (e.g. Giove in Argo), Christoph Willibald Gluck, and Johann Christian Bach. These composite works would consist mainly of portions of other composers’ work, although they could also include original composition. The portions borrowed from other composers would be more or less freely adapted, especially in the case of arias in pasticcio operas by substituting a new text for the original one. (Wikipedia: pastiche)

Is it too late to sue? How dare someone take slabs of music and rework it for their own gain! heh.

There seems to be a difference between pastiche and homage. I think pastiche is where you nick wholesale bits and pieces and homage might be more ‘in the style of…’.

One of my favourite series of books to read over and over again are the Mary Sherlock Holmes ones – Sherlock and young Mary wander over the world solving crimes. Actually I think Mary does the solving while Sherlock looks on.

You know that everything I know about the world I learn from those founts of all knowledge, New Idea and Woman’s Weekly. Oh and Plato’s The Republic. If you want to understand the issues around original content, Plato is an excellent example: most of what he wrote was as “Socrates”.

Platonism was originally expressed in the dialogues of Plato, in which the figure of Socrates is used to expound certain doctrines, that may or may not be similar to the thought of the historical Socrates, (Wikipedia: Platonism)

So he seems to be quoting Socrates when discoursing philosophy. But they are not verbatim discussions where Plato sat at Socrates feet, instead Plato’s ‘Socrates’ seems to be a voice which he uses to evolve some of the philosophical discussions from Socrates day. So here’s some questions:

  • Why did Plato remove himself from the conversation?
  • Why did Plato put his own words in Socrates mouth?
  • Why did he pick Socrates anyway – and then mashup the stuff Socrates did say?
  • Plato was not part of Socrates inner circle -how did he get his hands on the notes (probably oral) and then why rework them?

I suspect the answers don’t come from an understanding of today’s culture (Fame Not Fortune) but from some older, high ideal of higher truth. New Idea has a lot to answer for. Plato was an original masher upperer. Perhaps after seeing the shadows on the wall in Plato’s Cave, you get up and walk outside and see not the original sun but a pastiche… collaborative puppetry? Ah well, I’m not a philosopher, just a chick that plays online games. You’ll figure it out on your own.
We create and re-create around those stories that mean something to us, updating if necessary

Also have a read of the Phaedrus page re: Aesop’s Fables and the multiple incarnations that content went through.

His work shows little or no originality; he simply versified in iambic trimeters the fables current of his day under the name of “Aesop,” interspersing them with anecdotes drawn from daily life, history and mythology. He tells his fable and draws the moral with businesslike directness and simplicity.

He should’ve been a blogger, I reckon. And then of course there are the copyist and good ol’ Anonymous:

Sometimes Anonymus refers not to an author, but to a manuscript copyist. Few manuscripts were signed, so the list might be extended almost indefinitely, but some manuscripts can be said to have transferred some of their importance to the copyist; in the manuscript tradition of Phaedrus, for example, it is common to refer to the Anonymus Nilanti, a 13th‑century copyist named after the scholar who edited him in 1709.

Anonymous Nilanti, we salute you! Maybe we should have a blog carnival called ‘Anonymous’ day where we release our content on an unsuspecting world, thousands of us, as Anon. Nah it wouldn’t work, our culture is too steeped in identity and reputation and ego. And herein lies the issue: societies evolve.

Originally it was books that were protected. Not the information in them. Books were expensive, and in the pre-printing-press and pre-photocopier days, some poor sap had to copy it all out. Books lived in monasteries, not private libraries – an old Book Curse:

For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with palsy, and all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying out for mercy, & let there be no surcease to his agony till he sing in dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails … when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him forever. (Book curse)

These days, that curse works if you nick ideas from my blog, unattributed, and try and sell it. Especially the bit about your ‘member’ being turned into toast. Oh and apparently Anathema was a punishment – removing you from the sight of Church and the sight of God. Not sure how they did that…

But in general material things were protected, thoughts were not. Perhaps the issue is, we attempt to protect what we value, while we value it, then release it when it no longer has a business model? No that’s not true – Plato’s business model was to be brilliant and get in front of Kings and such. He didn’t care about his words being distributed – a bit of word of mouth advertising in the agoras never did anyone any harm. In fact the more he had out there, the less likely some Plato-wannabe would rip off his words.

Anyway, next time you see Mickey Mouse think about this: would we have copyright today if Disney hadn’t fought tooth and nail to extend copyright? Does that Mouse have a lot to answer for?

Please understand that I am not against copyright – Creative Commons is brilliant. Some people confuse CC with wholesale stealing of content. It’s not – it’s about attribution and recognition of the oral tradition (linking to blogs and articles) and not re-selling content you didn’t create (free-the-content). Social Media and Social Networks just keep doing what we’ve always been doing – just with a bigger audience and more immediate response.

Your Homework: Work your way through the Hit Parade (Middle Ages Bestseller list) and figure out which books were a pastiche or mashup. Just don’t ask me to translate the Latin bits for you.

Similar Posts


  1. I really enjoyed this Laurel – very interesting (although I can’t add anything to the discussion because I’ve rather a bad head hold and my brain is refusing to think…)

  2. Head Colds r tech suck. uhoh *atishoo* now you’ve given it to me. Things can go so ‘viral’ on the ‘net 😛

    If you are feeling really poorly, why not go back to bed, get a copy of every book from the Epic of Gilgamesh onwards, and refuse to get up until you’ve read them all? *sighs contentedly* that’s what I’m gonna do one day! *picks up New Idea and starts to do the Sudoku*

  3. In a world where words create the world, words have power. It’s all we have really.
    The real problem is that people don’t get the value of their words. They don’t honour their words as if they were the most valuable thing they have. They don’t do what they said, when they said, undermining the power of their own words.
    Should there even be copyrights? Everything we say or write comes from things we have heard or read anyway. We all have our own interpretation. I don’t know…

Comments are closed.