What Is an Artistic License?
Artistic license allows artists to distort facts, change rules or omit details to improve their work of art. It also is often referred to as historical license or poetic license, though it also can be called narrative license. While it is expected to be tolerated by audiences for the sake of the art, it may offend some viewers, who might be annoyed when their favorite work of art is altered by an artist to create a new piece. In general, artistic license allows artists to be creative without getting into legal trouble for distorting real life or modifying original art to create new artistic objects.
Unlike some types of licenses, no one has to apply for artistic license, because it is available to all artists. Many use it to improve their work, such as slightly changing the typical rules of grammar to make a poem or song sound better. Some artists, on the other hand, modify old works of art to develop new ones and, though it may irritate fans of the original work, it is typically legal. For example, artists may take a few images or words from other works of art and incorporate them into a new piece, even leaving out many of the details, if doing so helps them get the effect they desire.
These artist rights continue even when artistic license is taken unintentionally, perhaps because of inadequate research or mistaken beliefs. For instance, an artist may paint a picture of an historic occurrence, but some of the details may be factually inaccurate, either because the artist did not do much research or the general public held some mistaken beliefs at the time. This tends to occur not only in paintings and nonfiction books, but also in movies and television shows. In such cases, artistic license may save the artist from having to edit the work to add the correct facts, because no one can demand that he be historically accurate or else face a lawsuit.
One of the most commonly seen types of artistic license is called dramatic license, which centers on making everyday tasks more exciting to capture the attention of the audience. Many television shows and movies, in particular, make use of this form of artistic license. For example, crime dramas rarely show the paperwork required of police, or the detailed lab work required of medical examiners, because these scenes would likely bore viewers. This type of artist license is often beneficial for both the audience and the creator of the work of art, which is why it is allowed without legal repercussions.
I don't mind the use of artistic license from time to time, but it really bothers me whenever the truth is sacrificed in favor of a good story. A few years ago, someone wrote a musical that was supposed to be about our city's "rough and rowdy" history. The two main characters were a rogue steamboat captain and the madam of an infamous local bordello. Both of these characters were based on real people, but they weren't exactly the loving couple portrayed in the musical.
When the musical premiered at the local theater, I sat with some older men who knew the real madam and boat captain. They spent the entire time looking at each other and saying things like"Well, THAT never happened." and "I think the real madam would have hit him with a shovel by now." Once it became obvious to the audience that the story was mostly fictional, people started losing interest.
I think some people complain about the overuse of artistic license, but they would probably not be happy with the end results if the writer didn't use it. Even the most dramatic true life story is bound to have some less-than-interesting details that wouldn't play well in a book or movie. By using some dramatic license, the screenwriter can rework those parts into something that keeps the rest of the story flowing.
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