Charles Dickens, England's famous 19th century novelist, wrote great works such as Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities, and Oliver Twist. At this time, American literature sucked (with exception to Hawthorne, who I hate anyway). A problem occured as Dickens' novels were copied and published in America for a fraction of the selling price in England, completely undercutting copyright and ownership laws. Dickens travelled to the United States to do a reading tour, and became infuriated as he realized that everybody had already read his work; it was, in fact, much more popular in America than in England, but none of the money went to him. His creative ownership had been violated and trampled upon. For writers, who earn little to nothing, that can be a crippling behavior.
But when an American is asked to name a famous, great or significant British novelist, who is the first one to come to mind? Charles Dickens. Maybe his legacy would be lessened if strict copyright and ownership laws had been upheld, if Americans did not read Dickens because the British publishers did not release the manuscript on that side of the Atlantic. Perhaps later American literary greats like Stepen Crane and Ernest Hemingway would not be as great without that Dickensian influence infused into American literary culture.
The question is this: What is more important, getting your art to the world, or being justly reimbursed for your art?
This question may also connect with the interesting trend of great artists to only become famous years after their deaths. Does the fact that they saw no recognition for their greatness lessen their greatness? Are their contributions less significant because they occurred so much later? Is art really so necessarily thankless?
The alternative band Radiohead reinvigorated their own artistic influence this last year with the free online release of their album In Rainbows. Radiohead revolutionized alternative music in the early 90s and has recently suffered a decline in popularity, at least until releasing In Rainbows. This was not your neighbor's garage band on MySpace releasing their album for free, this was Radiohead, the great forerunners of early 90s alternative. You know that everyone and their mother downloaded this album - people who would otherwise never listen to it revelled in its free, melodic glory. Radiohead was completely unafraid of risking monetary reimbursement, putting art first, simply expressing to the people for expression's sake. Is that the definition of a great artist, or at least an essential element of it?
I submit that Radiohead has forever established itself and its music as great art by championing this new distribution method. Much like how Dickens accidentally cemented his legacy in transatlantic literarature, Radiohead has likewise allowed itself to be fully appreciated. Radiohead looks past the deceptive boundaries of creative property and reminds us what art essentially is and does.