Inspiration is not derivation

Recovered from the Wayback Machine

I have branded myself outsider, if not outcast, in some weblogging circles by not embracing Creative Commons without hesitation, and not being 100% behind the anti-copyright/pro-public domain movement.

(For what it’s worth, I am behind Imaginative Pastures.)

Scott Andrew LePera wrote an excellent posting saying very nice things about my Mockingbird’s Wish. His post also highlighted what I feel is the disconnect between what I’m trying to say, and what the folks who have been disagreeing with me are hearing. Scott wrote the following:

The Mockingbird’s Wish is itself a derivative work, having roots in wishbringer mythology passed down through oral tradition from numerous cultures. The theme is a familiar one: foolish animals go before gods and spirits to ask for wishes, often getting their just desserts in the end. Rudyard Kipling drew heavily on the same themes in his Just So Stories. I’ve never read Joseph Campbell, but I’ll bet he’d have something to say about the character of the wishbringer.

Shelley has, unintentionally or not, done a bit of rip/mix/burn literature.

I’ve never heard of ‘Wishbringer’, but the concept behind god-like beings granting wishes to foolish creatures is as old as time itself, and forms much of our folklore and mythology, as Scott points out. However, I differ with Scott when he says that I derived my story from Wishbringer. I think what he meant to say is that I was inspired by a genre of writing, of which Wishbringer is most likely a part of. And that’s the heart and soul of the miscommunication. defines derivative as:


1. Resulting from or employing derivation: a derivative word; a derivative process.

2. Copied or adapted from others: a highly derivative prose style.

What’s even more telling is some of the synonyms for derivative: plagiaristic, rehashed, procured, second-hand, uninventive, unoriginal.


Mockingbird’s Wish is neither a copy, nor an adaption of a specific work, and I certainly hope it was not uninventive, unoriginal, and second-hand. No one story or tale was in my mind when I wrote it, and the style is, I hope, uniquely my own. However, the inspiration for the type of story, and the concept of using a parable to make a point arises from every story and tale based on folklore and mythology I’ve read over the years.

In Mockingbird’s Wish there is a little Hans Christian Anderson, and a smidgeon of “Through the Looking Glass”, and a tiny bit of Navaho legend, an atom or two of a story I read years ago and can’t find, as well as a dab of Greek mythology, a hint of the King James Bible, and more than a little general faerie god-motherness thrown in. It’s inspired, in part, by all of these influences, and more, but it isn’t a derivation of any of them. The closest you’ll come, perhaps, is that I mention the nightingale in the story, and that’s the focus in Anderson’s classic The Nightingale. But then, Mockingbird’s Wish focuses on birds, which are the subject of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic movie “The Birds”, so if my work is a derivation of Anderson, one could also say it’s a derivation of Hickcock, too.

The point I’m making is that there is a world of difference between copying or adapting a work from another and creating an original work based on inspiration. No matter how modified, or beautiful, or grand, the derivation is and will always be a copy, while the inspired work is, and will always be, an original work. This isn’t to say that derived work is “bad”. But a derived work is dependent on a specific work that, if it had not been created, the derived work would also not exist. Inspired work is not dependent on any one work or even any one artist.

Copyright laws provide controls on derived works, but not inspired works. When a work enters the public domain, it can be used for a derivation, but a work can provide inspiration regardless of whether it’s copyright protected or not. This is one of the points I’ve been trying to make, and one that seems to keep failing — to many of the people who I disagree with, there is no difference between the two, while to me, there is a world of difference.

Another point I’ve been trying to make, and one that has even less acceptance if that’s possible is that regardless of copyright, there exists another element that should impact on what we do with another’s work: respect.

An example that keeps being brought up is Samuel Beckett and his plays. Beckett, perhaps more so than most playwrights, had tightly held notions about how his plays were to be produced, including blocking two plays because female actors were brought in for male roles. Some would say that Beckett’s strict controls inhibited other’s interpretation of how the play should be produced. Scott wrote:


I simply disagree with the notion that any creative works are so important that we must have laws that state they cannot be interpreted in any other way other than how the author intended. Things are interpreted, and reinterpreted. It’s the way our culture works. Even our own Constitution is constantly being reinterpreted, sometimes with grave consequences.


Scott has a very good point, but then, so did Beckett. Beckett’s view was that he was ‘inspired’ to write a play that had a specific message, and someone else’s interpretation of his play could also change the message, and this changes the soul of the play itself.

Ultimately the question of inspiration compared to derivation compared to interpreation reduces to: does the need of the new artist to re-interpret or create a derivation of the original work take precedence over the need to respect the original artist’s wishes? This is a question that can never be answered by copyright law because it is an issue of respect as it is balanced agains innovation.

This question, or it should be, the question asked every time a person want’s to re-interpret another’s creation. It is outside my comprehension how an innovator who is so moved by a piece of work to want to apply their own interpretation on it, not also be moved by the original artist’s wishes. If they are not, then their arrogance can’t help but obscure the original artist’s message and rather than add to the work, they detract from it.

However, if the innovator does ask themselves this question, and applies their innovation with respect to the original artist, carefully, delicately, adding their own message without destruction of the original artist’s, then the work can be enhanced. But only a person who can see beyond their own needs has the empathy necessary to merge their view with the original artist’s view.

I think my biggest concern about all of this is that we seem to be a society that is progressing towards an attitude that it’s okay to rip/mix/burn with no thought of the consequences, the results, the original artist’s views or work, or anything other than our own desires to do what we want, when we want. Cheap hacks rather than inspired creations.

Scott wrote at the end:


And let’s face it: sometimes the derivative is better. Or at least more consumable.

Not sure how to respond to that, except to quote what Michael Hanscom wrote about Mockingbird:


I’ve always tried to do my best to sing my own song. Some days I do better than others, of course, and it’s easy to get lost in the chorus, but at least I can always keep trying.

(I said in a previous posting that it was the last posting on this topic; I guess I lied. But I was inspired to write this when Mockingbird’s Wish was called a derived work. )

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