“To pay or not to pay, that is the question.”

I was sure Shakespeare had created Hamlet. The dark Dane, the brooding Prince of existential angst seems quintessential Bard. Hamlet is the most translated, quoted and performed play in the history of the world. It’s inspired 26 ballets, six operas, countless musical works, parodies, and over 45 movie versions, including a variation by Mel Brooks. It’s as if Shakespeare had somehow dived into the human psyche and pulled out the essence of our existence: justice, love, betrayal, sorrow, madness, the works.

Except that Shakespeare stole the whole thing. Or you could say he appropriated it. You can’t say he was just “inspired by” because the entire plot, including feigning madness, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the crazy girlfriend, the murdered father, the whole story came from a tale written about 1185 by Saxo Grammaticus.

Fortunately for Shakespeare, there was no such thing as intellectual property. And fortunately for us, because let’s face it, who’s heard of Saxo Grammaticus’ epic called Amleth, Prince of Denmark? You have to hand it to Shakespeare, at least he had fun scrambling the letters in the prince’s name.

A recent article in the NY Times revealed that several world art museums are putting their collections online for people to be able to download and print: on t shirts, cups, toilet paper, whatever they wish. “The old masters were born and died before we even had copyright law in the Netherlands,” said Paul Keller, a copyright adviser who advised the Rijksmuseum of Holland on the plan.

I imagine Van Gogh, Rubens, Cezanne, and the countless other artists who died penniless sitting up there in the art studio in the sky.

“Damn,” says Van Gogh, “I’d cut off my other ear to come back down and collect some of the money people are paying for my work. Or even a royalty for those mugs!

“Hey look at that, one of my paintings just sold for $250 million dollars!” yells Cezanne. “And my landlord told me I’d never be worth a sou.”

Rubens grunts. “I painted for the person who hired me. I give him the painting. He pays me. I go and paint another picture. Who cares what happens after that?”

Before the invention of the printing press, books were copied by hand. Authors wrote books for a patron, sometimes commissioned, just like paintings. If someone wanted a copy of a book, they literally had to copy the book. But it no longer belonged to the author. He’d already been paid once. Same with painting. As for theater, performers were happy if people threw some coins at them before the local clergy came running in to arrest them.

Shakespeare got paid to write plays. But he never got royalties for repeat performances. And certainly his heirs have not benefited from the many variations of his work.

But back to Hamlet. Turns out Saxo Grammaticus adapted the story of Amleth from an Icelandic myth about Amlodhi and his giant mill, which is actually a variation of a Finnish heroic tale called the Kalevela which some say is derived from the ancient Egyptian tale of Isis and Osiris. These stories have moved and edified people for thousands of years. So who is the original author? Perhaps this story is deep in our DNA, so that we can’t stop re-telling it.

During the Boznian War, there was a report aired about a theater company in Sarajevo that was performing a production of Hamlet in a basement during the bombing of the city. The reporter described people scurrying from doorway to doorway trying to avoid getting shot and still be on time for the performance. Would I risk death to see Hamlet? Maybe, if it was possible I might never get another chance. Did the danger make the performance even more alive, like eating blowfish, or bunjee jumping? I think Shakespeare would have been pleased to see his tragedy performed in the midst of tragedy, royalties be damned.

The internet has turned everything around. It was Google Art that caused the museums to cave. Then writers like Neil Gaiman began to discover that if they offered their books for free, they actually sold more than if they held on to their intellectual property. Young people making art for art’s sake, or just silly weirdness a la Jenna Marbles created viral videos that has turned them into YouTube millionaires. In a world drowning in creativity, what price is an idea?

Years ago, when I was a professional mime, a woman who fancied herself a rival performer called me. “I’m stealing your mime piece,” she said, “And you can’t do anything about it.”

“Why should I?” I asked.

“Well, I’m not going to give you credit either,” she sputtered. “I just wanted you to know in case someone tells you they saw the show. Good luck trying to sue me.”

“I have no desire to sue you,” I replied.

“Are you mad at me?”

“No. I don’t care. You and I will always know who wrote the piece. To be honest, I feel kind of sorry for you. I stopped performing that piece years ago, and I have plenty of ideas for new pieces. If you are so creatively bereft that you feel you need to steal something an old mime piece, I give it to you with my blessing.”

About 15 years later, I saw she was performing downtown and went to see the show. She was still doing the same piece. I had long ago moved on to other projects. My hope is that someone somewhere saw the piece, and was moved and inspired enough to steal it from her, adapt it, enlarge it, maybe add a few characters. Perhaps in another 4000 years or so, my story will have the depth of Hamlet. Who could ask for better royalties than that?