Why originality matters
In July 2019, a jury found 13-time Grammy nominated singer and songwriter Katy Perry guilty of copyright infringement for her song, “Dark Horse.” Plaintiff Marcus Gray and two co-authors alleged that the chorus of Perry’s 2013 hit copied the notes and beats of their song, “Joyful Noise.”
Many artists in the music industry have spoken out against the decision, saying that although the descending minor scales and rhythms are similar, the melodies are not comprised of the same notes and the beats per minute of each song is different. Ultimately, Perry and her team are liable for $2.78 million in damages, but this court decision has further-reaching implications.
In a world where millions of hours worth of content is published every day, is it possible to be original anymore? Where do we draw the line between being inspired by art and actually copying intellectual property?
Art, whether it be music, literature or visual image, is arguably the most human form of expression. It stems from imagination, given life by creativity and put out into the world for others to enjoy. Original works of art do not come from previously established works; they may take inspiration from different sources, but they ultimately bring fresh perspectives and allow for greater empathy in the world, as people connect with those experiences and stories. Originality begets progress. However, as art becomes more commercialized and commodified, the opportunity and time to create original work has become more and more insignificant.
Look at Disney, for example. What began as a small company dedicated to advancing cartoon animation has transformed into a billion-dollar multimedia conglomerate. In this past year alone, the top six highest grossing films at the domestic box office (“Avengers: Endgame,” “The Lion King,” “Toy Story 4,” “Captain Marvel,” “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” and “Aladdin”) are Disney-affiliated films—and all of them are franchise sequels or remakes. In other words, none of them are original works.
This is not to take anything away from these films. In fact, “Toy Story 4” was able to explore new facets of its iconic franchise and actually make a genuinely refreshing sequel, albeit unnecessary. Nevertheless, most of the other films are either remakes or superhero films that follow the same three-act Marvel formula in which a quippy outsider and his/her team of sidekicks defeat a dangerous (but not too dangerous) villain.
Audiences may find comfort in the nostalgia of watching their favorite characters on the silver screen. However, the speed at which studios produce franchise films does not allow for nostalgia to set in anymore, establishing that quantity rather than quality is the new measure of success.
From a corporate standpoint, these films’ sheer box office dominance is an immense achievement. But what does it spell for the future of cinema, as well as other forms of media?
If these types of films continue to make staggering amounts of money, there’s nothing stopping studios from continuing to churn countless remakes and sequels out. It is the sheer volume at which unoriginal films are saturating the box office that is the worry, and this number is increasing every year.
Nevertheless, the blame should not solely be shifted onto the studios producing these films. After all, companies need to make revenue. By continually pushing studio films made with little originality, we are just as guilty of this pervading problem. We, as the audience, have an obligation to encourage the creation of original content. This means supporting independent films by deliberately seeking them out at local theaters and spreading the word about original films that you enjoy.
Furthermore, this issue of diminishing originality is not only limited to film; it can also be applied to other forms of media. Now, more than ever, it is important to support local artists and begin questioning the content we are incentivized to consume.
That being said, I believe it is still possible to be original. Original just means it has to come from you. Take inspiration from your favorite artists, filmmakers, writers. (They’re your favorite for a reason.) Then, it’s up to you to tell your own story.
By Sarah Aie, Online editor-in-chief
Editorial cartoon by Joy Wang