Authorship is a complicated business. Ideas and images are used and reused, and oftentimes, even new work can but follow known and established forms. There will ever be things that serve as references and sourcesâ€” content is often more meaningful because it draws upon things that already exist, things that already in themselves hold a concept or association. And imitation is how people learn in the first place, learn how to create work in their chosen medium, learn its parameters, learn how to produce work that transcends those boundaries.
But at what point do allusion and imitation and reference, especially after filtered through artistic license, become plagiarism? Is a fictitious account of a non-fiction source original? Credible? Is a painting of a photograph a legitimate work of art in itself? (There have been massive outcries over this.) Is the recreation of a piece in a different medium its own autonomous entity? Even when accusations of plagiarism can be mitigated by attribution and sourcing, things deemed the first or the original are also deemed the most genuine, the most valuable, the most worthy of reverence.
Photography, in particular, often finds itself in a morass of undefined attribution. Technology has rendered the ability to take images mundane, trite. The sheer volume of pictures produced every day, hour, minute, of anything and everything, has changed the nature of photography and its perceived value. It has, moreover, given new weight to the question â€œwhat is artâ€: are images of other peopleâ€™s art art?
Some of the answer depends on subject, of course. Natural subjects, photographs taken for journalistic and documentary purposesâ€” these are not so much contested. But if someone else has set up the installation or erected the building or made and laid out the food, or what have youâ€” which part, the physical piece or the carefully oddslot composed image of it, is more important? Photography requires translating a more ephemeral or greater-dimensioned, multi-sensory experience into something that cannot merely allow itself to be reduced, but needs to create for itself a greater, meaningful something that might not have been visible in the original form.
Purpose and context are what everything comes down to, in the end. While copyright laws regulate the commercial aspect of intellectual property, they do not regulate its creation, it social meaning, its cultural significance.