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Shia LaBeouf & Kenneth Goldsmith on Plagiarism in the Digital Age

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Shia LaBeouf & Kenneth Goldsmith on Plagiarism in the Digital Age

Adrian Patenaude

So far, Shia LaBeouf's antics on Twitter have consisted mainly of childish attempts to rationalize his behavior. However, in his interview with Bleeding Cool, he seemed to have a deeper point about the role of plagiarism in the digital age. But it wasn't until he retweeted a University of Pennsylvania professor with similar views that people started to take his message seriously. It turns out, Professor Kenneth Goldsmith has been plagiarizing a lot longer than LaBeouf has.

Goldsmith has been experimenting for quite a while with plagiarism as art, dubbing his practice "uncreativity." For example, one of his projects in 2000 was to copy the New York Times "letter for letter, from the upper left hand corner to the lower right hand corner." He has also taught classes on "Uncreative Writing," in which plagiarism and piracy were encouraged while completing assignments.

Nailed Magazine recently interviewed Goldsmith concerning LaBeouf's scandal. While Goldsmith thought his attempts to get out of trouble were "sloppy," he was happy because it was "jump-starting a conversation [about plagiarism] that needs to happen."

Goldsmith has two main defenses for appropriation as creation.

First, in an essay titled "Uncreativity as a Creative Practice," he compares appropriation in literature to "Fountain," a controversial artwork by Marcel Duchamp in 1917. The sculpture was, practically speaking, nothing more than a urinal turned on its side and signed. It originally outraged critics, but now it's proudly displayed in art museums. In his interview with Nailed, Goldsmith says he believes that "moving something from one context to another is an act of art in and of itself." In his essay, he  wonders why the art world accepts Duchamp's appropriation of a urinal as art, while plagiarism is still strictly banned in literature.

Goldsmith's second defense of plagiarism is that the digital age lends itself naturally to appropriation. We can see that clearly in how memes are distributed online - sources are lost just as quickly as the image spreads. Goldsmith explains his viewpoint in a fascinating essay titled "It's Not Plagiarism. In the Digital Age, It's 'Repurposing.'": In an era of abundant information, "how I make my way through this thicket of information—how I manage it, parse it, organize and distribute it—is what distinguishes my writing from yours." Creativity is no longer a matter of making something new, but of making something of what is already created.

These are all ideas that require serious thought as our paradigm shifts in the digital age. However, I have a counter-point. The bottom line for me is that every worker deserves her pay. These days, we expect entertainment to be free, or close to it. We have YouTube, music streaming, 99-cent games and an endless supply of cat memes. It's the reason why we love the Internet, but it's also the reason so many arts industries are struggling to survive. Just check out the shocking statistics in this infographic about what musicians earn from streaming services. The world is changing, but we must show respect for the artists among us.

Next time, we will explore the possibilities of collaboration in the digital age and what it really means to "steal like an artist."

What do you think about Kenneth Goldsmith's ideas? Can you agree with any part of his argument?