Choreographer Stephen Brown kept hitting the same barrier whenever he sought a soundtrack for his latest dance piece.
He considered a rarely unearthed jazz composition in need of discovery, or a snippet from an obscure electronic musician. But the answers stymied him. "No, you cannot use this piece of music," the copyright holder told Brown, or "Yes, you can, but only for $30,000."
The dilemma stymied Brown, director of SB Dance Company.
Then it got him thinking. In an age when copying creative works is easier than ever through the Internet and various digital technologies, and when artists collaborate either directly or indirectly at an ever-accelerating rate, legal and creative frameworks should also be changing, Brown believes.
He admits he's not a copyright attorney, just someone who wants to create stage works. "But it seems an essential part of our creative culture that it be free in a lot of ways, at the same time recognizing that people need to be paid for what they do."
The tension between copyright ownership and artistic freedom is at the center of the first installment of the company's Cultural Confidential, a panel discussion slated for Wednesday, Sept. 5, at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. Titled "Access, Ownership, and Creativity in the Info Age," it enlists the expertise of seven Utahn across fields such as art, writing, software, law and education. Panelists include software developer Jason Hill, law professor and playwright Debora Threedy, journalist Glen Warchol and Anne Jamison, associate professor of English at the University of Utah.
The panel comes with a participatory element. Panel and audience members are encouraged to bring what they consider the most artful example of plagiarism to the evening event. Brown said the winner will receive a certificate for a free dinner at Takashi, the sushi restaurant that's sponsoring the event.
Plagiarism is at issue for the panel discussion because copyright law hinges on the question of originality, and what portion of a creative work is borrowed or created from an original source.
Jamison is versed in Victorian literature and Kafka as well as the emerging trend of "fan fiction," in which devotees of an author or genre attempt to imitate works through their own writing. The current definition of originality is largely obsolete, she asserts.
"When we talk about originality, we often talk more about the labor of creating something than a romantic notion of a work that could be originated in the soul of an author," she said.
That may seem an esoteric claim, but it's as true in the commercial realm as it is in academic discussion. Recent blockbuster films offer perfect examples, such as "The Avengers," which was based on recycled comic-book characters.
"A successful commercial pitch rarely says, 'Here's something you've never seen,' " she said. "Instead, it says, 'Here's something you already know.' "
Brown said he hopes to assemble future Cultural Confidential forums around various other issues in attempts to lend community to the local Utah arts scene that might otherwise remain, as he put it, "Balkanized."
The topic of SB Dance Company's first panel about creative issues will be "Access, Ownership and Creativity in the Info Age."
When • Wednesday, Sept. 5, 8 p.m.
Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center's Black Box Theater, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City
Info • $5 through Arttix, at 801-355-ARTS or http://www.arttix.org