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26 August 2006

Why Firing People For Quoting The West Wing Is Bad For . . . Everyone!

There are those who are completely insensible to the lure of an abstract painting or a finely crafted line. There are those who hear such expressions like siren songs, like ringing in their veins; who crave artistic communion as their daily bread. Yet it is of little moment whether a person is art lover or art indifferent. The creativity of the few and the passionate regard for creativity of a few more, benefit us all; siren-intoxicated sailor and sober ship's captain alike. And that is why, the notion of NBC firing a writer for using words penned by Aaron Sorkin for an episode of the West Wing is such complete and utter crap.

There are two issues. The first is (though of course, Sorkin rarely notifies me of his thinking on such issues), I have difficulty imagining that the punitive hoopla has over this situation is about anything more than corporate claim-staking. And that it has nothing to do with Sorkin or his feelings on the matter. Corporations think in terms of ownership, rights and exclusive property. Artists think in terms of communication, contribution, freedom and expression.The second, is that firing people for speaking the words of great writers is bad for everyone, which I'll get into next time we meet (or the time after).

Here's an excerpt of the story reported by the New York Times a few months ago:

NBC Admits Plagiarism in Feature Before Derby
NY Times ^ | May 11, 2006 | RICHARD SANDOMIR

A freelance writer will no longer receive assignments from NBC Universal Sports after copying two passages from a 2002 episode of "The West Wing" in his script for a feature that preceded the Kentucky Derby on Saturday.

Ken Schanzer, the president of NBC Universal Sports, confirmed that the plagiarism had occurred. He would not identify the writer but said, "He won't work here anymore."
The short feature, which was preceded by a commercial for the final two episodes of "The West Wing," looked at the difficulties faced by Barbaro's trainer, Michael Matz, who survived a plane crash in Sioux City, Iowa, then led three children to safety; Alex Solis, who broke his back in a track spill two years ago but rode Brother Derek on Saturday; and Brother Derek's trainer, Dan Hendricks, who was paralyzed in a motocross accident.
In the script, read by NBC's Tom Hammond, Matz was extolled because he "ran into the fire to save the lives of three children." Hammond paused dramatically and added, "Ran into the fire."
The two-hour opening episode of the fourth season of "The West Wing" included a plot line in which two pipe bombs exploded and killed 44 people in the swim team's facility at the fictitious Kennison State University in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Martin Sheen, who plays President Josiah Bartlet, delivered a speech praising the rescuers who "ran into the fire to help get people out." He paused and added dramatically, "Ran into the fire."

The Derby script summed up the changed lives of Matz, Solis and Hendricks by saying that the "funny thing about life is that every time we think we've measured our capacity to meet its challenges, we're reminded that that capacity may well be limitless."

(Excerpt)
Please note, that the firing of this writer was precipitated not by a complaint from Sorkin, but an email from a West Wing fan who recognized the quote. What is ironic, is that just a few minutes after the Bartlet gave the speech now the cause of so much misery, the character of the speech writer Sam Seaborn in response to being complimented on it paraphrased T.S. Eliot, saying, "Good writers borrow, great writers steal out right" Aptly spoken, as Sorkin is not the originator, but the adaptor of many words in the hotly-contested Bartlet quote.

As a writer, here's what I know. There is no greater compliment than to find your words taking life in the language of others. No I don't mean plagiarism. I'm talking about language, the spoken word, the vernacular. People today say, 'Here's looking at you', 'I'll be your Huckleberry', 'Go to the mattresses', Good fences make good neighbors', 'The road not taken', or 'Once more into the breach'. What we forget to remember is that someone, at sometime, wrote those words. All of them.

Many times when we quote Shakespeare or Mario Puzo, or Robert Frost, we are merely speaking words spoken by others which sound well to us. Long after the cultural memory of a phrase's origin is lost, a well-made line will live on, carrying the life of its author along with it. Writers tend to lead a somewhat isolated existence chained to a desk in front of a blank computer screen or white piece of paper. We rarely realize the impact of our expressions on our audience. When a writer's words take life in the language of the guy four booths down in the diner, or the girl at the check out counter, this is no small thing. And the notion that in language words you have written may outlive you, or that you have given new life to some arcane expression found in an obscure novel, that is a glimpse into immortality of the sort which gives us permission to think in terms of big words; words like legacy and posterity.

So I can imagine Sorkin, who did a great thing in a small way, who put a beautifully worded and moving speech into the mouth of a fictional president to lament a fictional tragedy, must gain some satisfaction to see those words ennobled and given true significance when put into the mouth of a news anchor in aid of expressing the exaltation of Michael Matz, who risked his own life to save three children one day in Sioux City, Iowa. And perhaps a thought touched his mind? Perhaps, ten, twenty a hundred years from now, he could hear people saying "the streets are too full of angels" to speak of those who die heroically and had his own glimpse of immortality.

take my poll: Plagarism? Language?:

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