On the Subject of Credit

If you don’t work in the creative realm, you may not know this, but it’s true.  One of the biggest fears of the artist is that someone will steal credit for your work.  Personality issues play a role in making collaborations more difficult, and this is the singular trait that scares us all the most.

Who are these idea vampires?  And how do I avoid them?

I am not immune from the accusation myself.  Yeah, on more than one occassion, I’ve had a collaborator or potential one accuse me of some pretty henious things.  It’s simply not how I work or ever have.  Certainly, failing memory may distort a person’s perspective on who came up with what detail (a plot point or character name, for instance), and I’m as guilty as anyone of getting those details mixed up from time to time.  But I’ve never stolen an idea, story, or the work of another person and claimed it was my own.

Not once.

The reality is that I’ve been blessed/cursed with so many ideas of my own that I could never use/complete all of my own work.  I don’t need someone else’s work to make me feel somehow accomplished.

So it gets me thinking, why do we fear this so often?

1) In the arts, most of our work goes unrecognized.

It’s true.  Even if you are a superstar, there’s a body of work that goes into all of this that will never – and often should never – see the spotlight.  It’s part of honing your craft.  It’s also a part of trying to find your place in a crowded space.  But the way it works psychologically is that each new idea will be THE idea that will propel you and your work into centerstage.  The last thing a struggling artist needs is for THAT project to be stolen out from under them.

How to avoid the vampires:  This is how we all are.  You simply have to build trust.

2) Some people confuse input with output.

Let’s say you ran into George Lucas in 1975, and he asked you, “What do you think of the name ‘Han Solo?'”  If you responded with “I like it,” you still don’t get a writing credit.  At the very most, you might get your name listed in the “Special Thanks.”  But you probably won’t get that.  Why?  Because people have sued for that credit in the past.

That’s bonkers, you say.  Yep.  It’s also the most extreme example.  Let me give you a more common issue that falls under the input/output confusion.

Let’s say there is a film project that you are working on with a group of friends.  You have story meetings, and then one of your buddies goes off and writes the script.  This pal comes back with the screenplay, and he’s written “Story By” and has the whole group and then “Screenplay By” and has only his name.  Well, that gets some people hot, but that’s pure ego.

Lawrence Kasdan wrote “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”  He got the credit he deserved.  George Lucas, who came up with most of the characteristic of Indiana Jones and the overall plot, got a “Story By” credit.  Anyone that takes more credit than George friggin’ Lucas for their contribution is hereby exempt from being able to complain about Jar Jar Binks and metachlorians.

The reality is, a true painter can take a close look at The Mona Lisa and tell you what kind of paint Leo used.  What kind of canvas.  An experienced, learned artist can tell you what brushes and strokes were used.  They know, because they’ve been going to Michael’s for years, bought the gear they’ve needed for their art, and have employed those material and techniques themselves over and over again.

You must separate the true artist from the “artist, in theory alone.”  The artist, in theory alone maybe took one good photograph in college, keeps saying things like “If I just had a better camera,” talks a lot about taking pictures, but hasn’t done squat.

Ask a lot of questions, gauge the knowledge, experience, and work ethic of your collaborators, and save yourself a lot of work for nothing.  Because working with these lazy dreamers will mean just that.  You’ll be doing most if not all the work, and they’ll think they did it.

3) Some people are thieves.

I’ve found that a lot of people are afraid of the gatekeepers.  They think the money men will steal your ideas and capitolize off of them.  That’s how Hollywood works.  And Broadway.  And Bollywood.

The reality is, that’s how a lot of the people who sit around obsessing over thieves work.  They will simultaneously try to boost their standing In a project and marginalize the work of others.

Sure, there are thieves in Hollywood, but most of them are the poor schlubs trying to make a name for themselves.  You know, just like your collaborators.

Here’s a good example.  “Clerks” gets bought by Miramax, and the guy that played Randall expected some sort of compensation.  No, Kevin and Scott never told him he would get a piece of any far-fetched payday, but they also never told him he wouldn’t.  For his part, Kevin Smith shrugged off his actor’s inqueries and blamed Miramax for not writing that into the deal.  He was hungry and desparate and saw his own contribution as the only role being rewarded.

In this, Kevin was niave and wrong.  He forgot what he owed to those who worked on the project with him.  He was getting a check and a movie deal.  How would it have hurt him to share a little of that money to those who owed a debt to?  After all, his little film had just won the lottery, and while he had bought the ticket, his cast and crew had helped him scratch it.

How to avoid the vampires:  First, no matter how uneven the odds, write out how you intend to payback your contributors.  In black ink.  Give them copies.  And in the unlikely event you strike oil, live up to your obligations.  Don’t give away the farm.  Make intelligent decisions, but never undervalue the work of others.

Likewise, don’t be a push-over.  Take the proper credit for the work you do.  Know exactly what you’ve done and what that’s called.  Don’t blow up your own ego, but don’t let someone else’s ego cause you to back away from staking claim to what’s rightfully yours.

Not until they can pay you for it.

Not unless it’s the truly smart thing to do.

Okay, so an autobiography sells more than a biography, but this person is basically illiterate.  They won’t be writing a word, but they’ll be telling you their whole story.  It’s okay to put their name on the book.  It’s maybe even okay for you to simply be a ghost writer and take NO credit for your work.  But that’s because their name is what is for sale.  If you’re working with someone no one is buying from, who perhaps has a somewhat recognizable name in rock music but wants to take the credit for the drawings you’ve done, you’re only feeding their ego, and we’ve already talked about what to do there, haven’t we?

Bottom line:  I would rather walk away from a project with my ethics intact than steal from someone else, and I think that’s perfectly reasonable.

Also, I’m done with vampires.  They suck the blood out of the art and leave it dead.  And why?  Because they crave their own immortality.

Drive a stake though that nonesense.


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