The Homage: Video versus music

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The Homage: Video versus music

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Wikipedia defines an ‘homage’ as “a show or demonstration of respect or dedication to someone or something, sometimes by simple declaration but often by some more oblique reference, artistic or poetic. The term is often used in the arts for where one author or artist shows respect to another by allusion or imitation”. It occurs everywhere.

A common example is the “Who’s on first” routine made famous by Abbott and Costello. Also, there is that famous scene from Dr. Strangelove where Slim Pickens rides the nuclear bomb like a bull until it lands on its target. These two examples, both from live action entertainment, have been imitated by many subsequent artists and creators.

Homage also occurs in music. I listen to Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, a punk rock cover band. Many of their songs include homages to other famous musicians and songs. For example, they do a cover of “On the Road Again” by Willie Nelson. At the beginning of the cover, Me First plays the intro riff from “Astrozombies”, a song by another punk rock band, The Misfits.

But there is a difference between homage in movies and in music. In movies, it seems easier to dance around copyright infringement and avoid liability. One can readily wink and nod to earlier videographic works because the props used in such an homage, though they may look close, still are not an exact copy of the originals. In music, however, a riff is a riff, and it is hard for me to refer to an earlier work in my song without using the earlier lyrics or exact combination of notes.

Sometimes, despite the community provided definition above, these imitations are done out of laziness – the copycat can’t come up with his own schtick, so he takes something that already existed and changes only enough to escape liability. In such cases, the word ‘homage’ is applied only as a veneer to escape what would otherwise be called infringement. Other times homage is paid out of respect as provided in the above definition. Though laziness should never be condoned, paying respect should, and as such the homage should be encouraged and should be applied equally across the entire spectrum of copyrightable material.

Why, then, are movies treated differently from music? If I write poetry and want to reference Robert Frost’s famous poem “The Road Not Taken”, I am forced to use one or more verses, verbatim. I need to copy exactly, or near to it, just to pay tribute to one of New England’s more prolific poets. If, however, I want to show my respect to Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove”, I can straddle a toppled trash can and waive a cowboy hat in the air, which is nowhere near an exact copy of even a small part of the original.


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