Sunday, December 17, 2006

The abyss gazes also into you, Jeffy

The brilliant Backwards City Review blog turned me on to the "Nietzsche Family Circus", a web page that pairs a random Nietzsche quote with a random Family Circus panel. The results are ironic, and sometimes--as with my favorites here, here and here--they are so hilarious it's hard to believe no human actually created that specific pairing.

A few questions. If no human wit went into the creation of a joke, how can it be witty? A human did think to pair the two elements in the first place; does that human deserve credit for creating the joke? Or is this an unintended collaboration between Bill Keane and Nietzsche?

The mash-up concept in various media has been a fertile source of innovation, so it's frustrating that it's so hard to sort out the questions of authorship mash-ups raise. Should sampling of text and images be treated by law the way music is, and thus be subject to the veto power of authors and artists? Should it be allowed freely under a wide interpretation of fair use? And is there any standard, short of the ad-hoc system of wildly diverging judges' opinions, that can be applied to determine the difference between whole-cloth rip-off and the creation of something legitimately new?