Creative Control

Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.

In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, Billy Joel addressed the subject of his record label reissuing his songs in repetitive greatest hits compilations and boxed sets. Joel’s last pop studio album was released in 1993, and his response was that of an artist who has accepted the limitations of his control over his art. Sometimes fame doesn’t give us as much power as we might expect.

We can all think of examples of novels that were poorly adapted as motion pictures. Once a story becomes the property of movie studios, there is often little the author (or the author’s estate) can do to protect the integrity of the work.  Entrepreneurs have lost – or voluntarily sold or given up – majority control of their business, only to see it go in some unintended direction.  One of my favorite jazz musicians, Keith Jarrett, has been known to chastise audiences for behavior that he considered disruptive – the integrity of the performance is influenced by the nature of the venue.

Photographers who share their work online can often find others taking credit for that work, sometimes in dramatic ways. This happened to me on a smaller scale some years back. I lived in Tampa, Florida, for several years and published a photo-blog of my experiences exploring the city. No one else was consistently photo-blogging about Tampa at the time and I had a lot of fun sharing the sites of this surprisingly visual city. It didn’t take long, however, before my photos started showing up on others’ blogs without acknowledging who owned the images. As a result, I now make a point of putting my name on photos I share online. It’s not a fool-proof method but will at least discourage a lot of potential theft. Some unethical business owners use the work of professional photographers without permission. I’ve read of one photographer who writes to those businesses, stating his standard licensing fee and reminding them that they don’t give away their own products or services.

The bottom line is that if you want to maintain absolute control over your own creative work, there is one approach that virtually guarantees that no one will ever misappropriate your work in any way.

Keep it to yourself.

Cells inside Alcatraz in San Francisco, California
Imprisoning your work is the only real way to keep it safe (Alcatraz Island, San Francisco)

Too much creative control can become a kind of prison.  For our work to truly have meaning, we have to share it with others eventually, even if only a small group.  But only an audience of zero can give you complete control.  Sooner or later, someone will share your work outside your intended group, or manipulate your work in some unflattering way, or even try to take credit for it.  And you will probably feel hurt and angry when that happens.  Many artists have.  If someone like Paul McCartney can’t fully control his work, how can the rest of us?

Keith Jarrett continues to perform concerts, no doubt realizing he will never be able to completely control the concert venue.  Creative musicians, writers, entrepreneurs, and others, continue to release their work to the world.  The occasional e-mail I received from Tampa residents who told me I showed them their own city in a whole new light more than compensated for a few stolen images from my blog.

The need for creative expression has to be satisfied.  What is the alternative?



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