On Erasure and Copyright Law

Globally in 2016, it seems impossible to have a unique thought. Having an idea to call your own is seemingly impossible without stepping on a multitude of toes and going through miles of red tape. The legal system is constantly adapting, especially when it comes to laws on copyright and intellectual property, and the government expects students to keep up to date. With MLA format changing what feels like biweekly and websites trying to prevent plagiarism making you feel guilty for every common saying, it seems demanding to expect even the most experienced writers to stay on track. With these laws becoming increasingly common, it is important to understand where exactly the line is between working from a similar set of ideas and plagiarizing. Blackout poetry is revolutionizing the world of poetry but, at the same time, it is blurring the line between creationism and plagiarism even more. Erasure is an expression of self, just like all forms of art. It is not plagiarism to draw from the muse of other authors because erasure alters the meaning of the text. This can be shown specifically through cultural plagiarism such as remixes of music.  Erasure is not plagiarism, but the increase of intellectual property law has stifled creativity and is attempting to take erasure and all its subsets down with it.

Blackout poetry is relatively new to the literary world. Although is finds its roots in something quite known to many, the practice of erasure, its unique ability to transform another author’s work into an original piece is unmatched. Erasure is when an author

99 Percent Robbery

Austin Kleon

works within a previously written paper and uses those words to create something new. Many, however, would argue that erasure is unoriginal work, that it is an act of plagiarism. Even one of its forefathers Kenneth Goldsmith, calls it “uncreative writing” (Cooney).

According to Cooney, there are two types of erasure writing, “‘complete’ erasures and palimpsests, and other.” Complete poetry is a set of poems that is kept intact whereas the “other” being erasure that actually erases words from the text. Blackout poetry falls into this category because it is a subset of erasure. Blackout poetry consist of an author working within the framework of a previously written paper and blacking out works to create something with a different meaning. These visual clues help readers see the contrast between the original work and the ending result. It becomes even more clear to the reader that the altered piece is a new work not just something branching off the work of the original piece. Yet, even amongst all the visual evidence of alteration, many people doubt the authenticity of erasure, stating that by working in the framework of a previous authors work, you are in fact taking a piece of their intellectual property. However, erasure is not plagiarism because it only pulls from a framework, not the ideas themselves. The laws that protect intellectual property are such an issue because “people routinely erasuremisunderstand or do not obey laws protecting intellectual property (IP), leading to a variety of (largely unsuccessful) efforts by policymakers, IP owners, and researchers to change those beliefs and behaviors” (Fast, Anne). So how does erasure poetry fit in? By definition, it stems from the work of another, therefore it should technically fall under the laws of intellectual property protection. Even if it nods to the original author, like Fast suggest, the fundamentals are the same. However, the content within the written piece of work is different. These blurred lines are the source of massive confusion between not only reader, but many writers as well.  

Intellectual property is an idea that has existed since the medieval times, passing into actual law in the late 1600s in England. Without the widespread use of the printing press, let alone something as vast as the internet, keeping tabs on what ideas belonged to which enlightened man was not a difficult task. It was typical for “authors not to declare copyright to their work” (Davidson 90-91) because they often couldn’t circulate the piece own their own (Crawford, Benjamin). This practice has made the true authors hard to track. Modern technology has made the task much more daunting. Somehow many people still manage to plagiarize parts of others work. Quite a few of T.S Eliot’s poems have pieces taken from less famous poets, such as his poem “The Waste Land” (Evans, Robert). Access to so many sources of knowledge and ways to


T.S. Eliot “The Wasteland”

cultivate ideas can cloud someone into plagiarism even if that wasn’t their task. Taking someone’s ideas and calling them your own is an obvious violation of the intellectual property laws set up worldwide, yet that makes it hard to even share similar ideas, writing is bound to have traceable overlaps. Many examples of blackout poetry don’t even draw inspiration from the pieces its formed from, it exists purely on its own. There is no hard and fast rule for where erasure becomes plagiarism there are just authors who choose to act on people molding their original work.
This seems to say that, in Western society, certain kinds of plagiarism are more forgivable than others. Intentional plagiarism such as copying and pasting is universally seen as wrong. However, unintentional plagiarism has mixed receptions among the public. Taking your own words from another article you’ve already written without citing yourself is considered plagiarism. Plagiarizing sentence structure counts as well. The written word is not the only thing that’s plagiarized though. Songs that are remixed are equivalent to erasure in my opinion because both are alterations of the original that work within the framework yet change the most crucial things about the piece. This is not the case with remixes such as the “difference” between Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” and Queen’s “Under Pressure.” The music in the background is nearly identical and Vanilla Ice did not obtain permission to copy it. Most remixes in music do not include all the lyrical content from the original song, just like how erasure doesn’t contain all the words from the original piece of written work. The beat and tempo in the music is altered to the point that the lyrics are the only thing that can trace the remix back to the original. The core of the song is changed, which makes it free from copyright law. With the availability of technology, most of the population can not say they aren’t guilty of copyright infringement. Nearly 57 million Americans are illegally downloading music now and that’s not including pirating movies (Geddes, James). It seems hypocritical to knock down a source of creativity for a crime that an overwhelming amount of the population commits, especially when plagiarism is not the goal of erasure. Erasure changes the core of a written work beyond recognition, which makes the source of the original irrelevant. I believe that if this wasn’t the case, creativity would be stifled.bogus-figure

Intellectual property law and copy right law makes it so difficult to have a creative work of art nowadays. I feel that the increase in intellectual property law actually decreases the amount of creativity, which can be shown through erasure. People argue that things such as blackout poetry, or the practice of erasure is plagiarism when it is truly just a creative outlet like anything else. The authors or poets aren’t trying to lay claim to the original piece, most would prefer not even to have it titled because it takes away from their work. They create something unique in their own form. Recycled artwork is stylistically made from other people’s original work, but that doesn’t contribute to the piece as a whole. The same could be said erasure. It takes bits and pieces from another author whole in order to make something new and beautiful. “The law assumes that the value of intellectual property can be determined only on the basis of a work’s content, even if that content is itself not protectable. The law rewards creativity in ideas by protecting their expression in a work, but it rewards creativity in expression only if there is otherwise no creativity at the level of content. Content has priority” (Ross, Trevor). This expression of work being hindered truly limitspoem1 the advancements that we can make as a creative whole. Because this idea of content taking priority, erasure blurs the line. The content is completely altered and drawn from different sources. Blackout poetry more exemplifies the alteration in content. Blackout poetry is far more about the visual ques that are given off then where the poem stems from. Working within another authors framework adds another layer of depth and a challenge but it is not a necessity to the content of the poem created. The words that makeup the poem are just words that obviously could be written elsewhere, the visual effect and the challenge posed is what sets blackout poetry apart from other styles and makes it a kind of erasure literature.
Erasure and all that stems from it is, like blackout poetry, is not plagiarism. Although many critics see blackout poetry as “uncreative,” (Cooney) the added challenge of working inside the framework of another authors work sets it apart from other poems. Society views certain kinds of plagiarism as more forgivable than others. For example, copying and pasting from someone else’s paper and claiming it as your own is universally wrong whereas making mistakes in citing is not nearly as offensive. In the modern Western world where everything is so readily available online, many of us find it too hard to resist pirating videos or illegally downloading music and breaking copyright law. Intellectual property law is less understood than copyright law and that’s one reason that it is still so hard to grasp the multitude of ways to break it. Erasure is not plagiarism it is simply means to express oneself. Copying right law and intellectual property law have been around for nearly 500 years but only recently have we began using it to stifle the creativity of others and further our own gains.


Cooney, Brian, and Brian C. Cooney. ““Nothing is Left Out”: Kenneth Goldsmith’s Sports and Erasure Poetry.” Journal of modern literature 37.4 (07): 16; 16,33; 33. Print.
This passage shows the different kinds of erasure poetry and focuses on the different kinds of erasure, postmodern and modernist poetry. It evaluates one the founders of blackout poetry and his works and how he transformed erasure as a genre.
Crawford, Benjamin Darrell. “A Case of Poetic Plagiarism in the Early United States.” ANQ (Lexington, Ky.) 26.3 (2013): 189; 189. Print.
This passage evaluates the depth of plagiarism in American literature. These two poems are compared for their literal similarities and it shows a cross between poems stemming from early modern literature.
Fast, Anne. “Experimental Investigations on the Basis for Intellectual Property Rights.” 40.4 (2016): 458-76. Print.
This explores the idea of creative commons and the legal aspects of intellectual property. It also exposes how many people view that infringement, as long as it nods to the author, is far less severe. This plays into blackout poetry because it is based in someone else’s work.
Hetherington, Paul. “Poetic Self-Inventions: Hoaxing, Misrepresentation and Creative License in Poetry.” New writing (Clevedon, England) 10.1 (2013): 18; 18. Print.
This article addresses the sincerity of poetry as an art. The author evaluates if poetry can be considered raw if it is conveyed through the guise of a mask. This works well with my piece because it argues that maybe all poetry is an extension of someone elses work, not just specifically erasure and blackout poetry.
Ross, Trevor. “The Fate of Style in an Age of Intellectual Property.” ELH 80.3 (2013): 747; 747. Print.
This article explores the extent to which laws on intellectual property hinder poets and authors. It states that in the 18th century, intellectual property laws didn’t protect ideas, only the direct arrangement of words. Modern laws are much stricter and limit the author by stating that a broad idea itself belongs to someone and is no longer considered a societal theme.

Seale, Tara, and Dan Bruno. “Steal Like a Teacher: NCTE and Professional Growth.” English journal 105.5 (05): 13; 13. Print.
This is a source that compiles media for English teachers. It relates to my work because it is a digital archive that takes small pieces from a whole work for learning but it isn’t affected by copyright laws. This draws attention to the blurry line that copyright law and intellectual property law stems from.
Geddes, James. “57 Million Americans Are Downloading Music Illegally: Study.” Tech Times. Tech Time News, 29 Feb. 2016. Web. 07 Nov. 2016.
This is a source that isn’t peer reviewed but evaluates the increase of Americans who are guilty of copyright infringement, specifically that of illegally downloading music.
Evans, Robert. “5 Great Men Who Built Their Careers on Plagiarism.” Cracked.com. Cracked, 29 Apr. 2009. Web. 07 Nov. 2016.
This source is not peer reviewed but it shows many famous people who have stood on the backs of others to become successful. It helps draw the line between creativity and plagiarism and gives examples of when society has fallen flat in caring about plagiarism.

Digital Citations

Blackout poem. Personal photograph by author. 10 Dec. 2016.

Eliot, T. S. The Waste Land. Digital image. Hypertext Fiction and Digital Poetries. UC Santa Barbara, n.d. Web. 13 Nov. 2016. <http://transcriptions-2008.english.ucsb.edu//curriculum/courses/forums.asp?CourseID=113&gt;.

Graph of Piracy Increase. Digital image. Online Piracy. UNC, n.d. Web. <http://torrentfreak.com/images/bogus-figure.jpg&gt;.

kasperhartwhich. Perf. Vanilla Ice. N.d. 12 Mar. 2013. Web. 13 Nov. 2016. <https://youtu.be/a-1_9-z9rbY&gt;.

Kleon, Austin. 99 Percent Robbery. Digital image. Austin Kleon. Austin Kleon, 5 May 2015. Web. 13 Nov. 2016. <http://austinkleon.com/2015/05/05/99-percent-robbery/&gt;.

kirby1. YouTube, 2011. Web. 11 Dec. 2016.
Murphry, Dana. “Erasure Poetry.” TWO WRITING TEACHERS. N.p., 19 Jan. 2014. Web. 11 Dec. 2016. <https://twowritingteachers.org/2014/01/20/erasure-poetry/&gt;.

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