Everything Is A Remix: The Invention Edition

from the innovation-is-a-process dept

We’ve discussed in the past Kirby Ferguson’s excellent project Everything is a Remix, which tries to highlight how creativity is almost always derived from elsewhere. We wrote about the first two videos, which covered copyright issues, starting with music and then movies. His latest may be the best yet, as it focuses on inventions, in large part by retelling the Apple story, concerning how it built off the work at Xerox PARC (which in turn built off work at SRC and other places). We actually just talked about this story a few weeks ago, and this video definitely adds to that conversation:

The key point, which critics will undoubtedly skip or gloss over, is that he’s not just saying that copying is good. He’s saying that copying is one part of the very important process of innovation. Copying is a component, but the important part is then taking that copy and doing more with it.
At issue is that some people believe that it’s better to do everything from scratch. But that’s incredibly wasteful, inefficient and too often, limiting. Being able to build on the works of others, to transform them and combine them with other good ideas, that’s where innovation comes from. We’ve pointed this out many times before. The iPhone was a wonderful innovation, but almost all of its technologies could be found elsewhere. It’s just that Apple put them together in a brilliant and user-friendly package. The video shows that the same thing was true of the original Macintosh, which took ideas from elsewhere and put them together in a useful manner. And, as you look back through history you find that it’s true of all sorts of revolutionary and transformative advances in progress, such as the Gutenberg printing press or Henry Ford’s Model-T mass production setup:

Innovation is almost always about remixing. It’s about taking ideas that are already out there, and transforming them and adding to them. And yet, our social and legal policies seem to deny this. They seem to be focused on the myth of “flash of genius,” — of an invention that is brand new and unique. And so we create a system like the patent system, which doesn’t recognize the importance and value of building on the ideas of others in order to continue that process of innovation. And that’s a shame, because it’s holding back progress in dangerous ways. It’s certainly not stopping progress, but what we lose from progress not going as fast as it could is tremendous.

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Companies: apple, xerox

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Comments on “Everything Is A Remix: The Invention Edition”

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Nicedoggy says:

I just saw this website video2k.tv that is from the same people raided recently and they lost 400 servers from Duckload.com according to TorrentFreak.

Besides the intentions of those people that stated as a vengeance against the industry, what stroke me was how well polished the thing was done not even Netflix is that good, there are no ads, there is a lot of options the UI is great and you get information from other websites like IMDB, rankings and even subtitles, heck the only thing missing was voice dubs on the fly, this is what people could do if the industry wanted to compete, but of course they don’t want to offer nothing of those things to people they want to make it hard for others to access their “products”, they want to call the same people that paid them names and further restrict how they can use what they paid for and believe people will sit idle while they do it.

I can only laugh at those blokes, the reality wall will be hard when they hit it.

out_of_the_blue says:

Er, no, let's go back to first principles.

“But [from scratch is] incredibly wasteful, inefficient and too often, limiting.”

While you’ve written some assertions so that disagreement is all but ruled out, let’s not be blinded by only exampling “good” innovations — in this paean to Apple and how well it tickles gadgetry types.

Innovation isn’t always good. Stupid and evil people can “innovate” too if that means piling on more. Those devils in human form called lawyers keep adding to a structure of legalisms until now most people /don’t/ know the (common) law, which is superior and overarching to statute, even over the Constitution itself.

Here’s a recent innovation in legalisms: by purchasing a ticket to ride an airplane, you’re assumed to “agree” to be invasively searched, or if you back out, subject to a heavy fine. Completely sets aside common law. — As does Apple when it insists that it owns your Iphone and Ipad and can track you.

Anonymous Coward says:

It’s all nice, but not everything is a remix. It’s a dishonest way of looking at things to attempt to justify widespread stealing of products and works by people too lazy to make their own.

Using the term “remix” is also very sneaky, a way to try to re-frame the discussion by creating confusion. Nice. Totally see thru, but nice.

Bengie says:

Re: Re:

It is *impossible* to create something without inspiration. That is how the human brain works.

Anything and everything ever created, was based on something else. It is humanly impossible to create something without some amount of knowledge or previous culture.

Unless you grew up in a deprivation chamber, anything you create is a remix.

Michael Long (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

“It is *impossible* to create something without inspiration. …anything you create is a remix”

One doesn’t follow the other, and to attempt to do so belittles creativity.

I can mechanically “create” a remix by simply copying stuff from here and there and pasting it together. Doesn’t mean it’s good nor useful nor particularly creative, for that matter.

Take the Gutenberg press. Yes, the pieces needed to create it existed for years. But where did the inspiration to combine them together come from? To create a new FUNCTION (automated printing) that previously didn’t exist?

The remix video implies that all Edison did was follow a mechanical process to create his light bulb. But where did his vision of his light bulb come from? Swan? Fine. Where did THAT vision come from?

Yes, we often build on the work of others. But Everything is a Remix implies that creativity is little more than a simple mechanical process that anyone can do, and as such supports a meme that’s typical of the “everyone is special” generation.

No one is smarter than you. No one is a genius. No one can see farther, or more. You’e safe in your mediocrity.

It’s all “just” copying. It’s all just a remix…

Nicedoggy says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

The Gutenberg press was the culmination of a series of past experiments starting with cuneiform writings. If people hadn’t invented the Roman Alphabet he probably wouldn’t be able to invent the press(since the small number of letters was what enable him to separate them), if people didn’t invent the “Screw Press he probably wouldn’t be able to invent the press, if the Chinese hadn’t invented the movable types he probably wouldn’t be able to make his, also without the invention of paper what would he print on?


Bi Sheng created a system of movable type in China circa 1040 AD.

Source: Great Chinese Inventions


The printing press was a screw press, specially designed to achieve an effective and even transfer of the image to paper or even parchment ? a quantum leap in speed and efficiency compared with the previous method of taking impressions by rubbing.

Source: gutenberg.de: Gutenberg’s Invention

And remembering that the first press was a sliding table that one put paper and pushed inside the screw press, it was a lot of hard work still, truly automated presses only appeared centuries later.

All the parts where there already he copied everything from others and put together a new concept just like remix people do they copy everything and put in new ways.

Nicedoggy says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Looking at that press today the only innovative thing he did was to put some piece of wood that slided to go back and forth, pushed by hand nonetheless.

The Romans used odometers and automated doors in their temples using steam engines.


The Greek scholar Heron of Alexandria created the earliest known automatic door in the 1st century CE during the era of Roman Egypt.[3] The first foot-sensor-activated automatic door was made in China during the reign of Emperor Yang of Sui (r. 604?618), who had one installed for his royal library.[3] The first automatic gate operators were later created in 1206 by the Arabic inventor, Al-Jazari.

Source: Wikipedia: Door

Can you imagine Gutenberg having to pay royalties and negotiating licenses with all the people who helped him make his invention? He wouldn’t have done it is just that simple, but because he was free to copy and build on the work of others he revolutionized humanity.

IP laws impede progress.

Nicedoggy says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Look at this website video2k.tv there is nothing out there legally that comes close to that, why?

They are able to do so because they are ignoring imaginary property, because when you respect those arbitrary absurd laws you can’t do it, and there is no motivation on the part of people holding innovation, culture and progress back to make something better.

That website is illegal, those people are not respecting the law, but they also are showing everyone, what could be done and now people know that what they are getting is not the best experience or the best product. People are being robbed and cheated by others that think others don’t deserve better, and of course people will say “screw you” to those trying to hold back progress.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“Take the Gutenberg press. Yes, the pieces needed to create it existed for years. But where did the inspiration to combine them together come from? To create a new FUNCTION (automated printing) that previously didn’t exist?”

…and? Just because it didn’t exist doesn’t mean it had never been thought of before. I’ll bet that Gutenberg wasn’t the first to have such inspiration, he was simply the first to successfully act upon it.

Meanwhile, centuries of other inventions and innovations were required for him to be in the position to be able to make the press a reality – he wouldn’t have gotten very far if ancestors of his hadn’t already invented the alphabet and the written language, for example, and he was working with paradigms that had been invented by those before him.

“But where did his vision of his light bulb come from? Swan? Fine. Where did THAT vision come from?”

So, maybe, at some point in the distant mists of the past, someone had a unique vision that came from somewhere unique without “copying”. But, does that really matter when considering Edison? All he did was “copy” and “remix” previous ideas, by your own admission…

“But Everything is a Remix implies that creativity is little more than a simple mechanical process that anyone can do, and as such supports a meme that’s typical of the “everyone is special” generation.”

Only if you’re an idiot who believes that remixing is something that can be done without inspiration nor creativity. Great remixes are usually the result of hard work and invention, not something that can be generated by an algorithm. If you understand that it involves both of those things, that’s exactly what innovation and art are.

“No one is smarter than you. No one is a genius. No one can see farther, or more. You’e safe in your mediocrity.”

Now, *that’s* misrepresenting ideas. To borrow a famous quote, geniuses can only see further than others because they stand on the shoulders of giants. Of course inspiration and innovation exists and there are geniuses out there. But all of them use what came before them to get there…

Huph (user link) says:

Re: Re:

While I understand the free culture movement’s obsession or whatever with the word “remix”, they are completely misusing a term to create a broken metaphor.

Let’s assume (I think rightly so) that the term in relation to culture was lifted from the activity of remixing music. I can’t think of another context the word is used, except in preparing food when you might literally re-mix your ingredients. In music, a remix is *not* when you create a new work out of samples. There’s not an agreed upon term for that, but generally those works are described as “sample-based” by industry insiders. “Insiders” in this instance is referring to the engineers that record and produce records, not label execs. Producing, mixing, mastering a sample-based piece is different from working on a new recording. Mainly, the difference is that the sampled works have already been mixed and mastered, thereby severely limiting how much post-production can be done with them. (They’ve already been smashed through compressors and limiters, for instance, so an engineer would not treat them like a new raw recording)

Now, it’s important that you know that^^^ so you can properly grasp what a remix is. A remix is a different version of the original song. It’s when a mixing engineer is given the raw untreated tracks of an original recording in order to make a new mix. As in, I wouldn’t remix a Drake song by sampling his mastered release, I would enter a contract with the label and be given the original raw files to literally arrange again into a new mix. That most often consists of preparing a non-dance track for dance floors. Anyone who remembers 12″ single LPs from the 80s and 90s will recall that side B often consisted solely of 3 different remixes of the A side. (Generally, an instrumental remix, an a capella remix, and an extended remix. Records are still released like this, but they are generally sold directly to DJs)

Maybe wiki will help: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Remix

Innovation is almost always about remixing. It’s about taking ideas that are already out there, and transforming them and adding to them.

That is not remixing. That’s a new work, or maybe it’s more like a sample-based song. Actually, to me it just sounds like garden-variety inspiration. A remix as related to cars might be more akin to how the Volkswagen Beetle and the Porsche started out as basically the same components, rearranged.

I was miffed when Lessig started using the term for his “remix culture” when in reality remixes are pretty strictly defined and are not about freely taking to make new works. The vast amount of remixes are sanctioned and released by the parent labels of any given song.

Anonymous Coward says:

With technology, I agree that there is nothing new. its building on ideas of others, someone else is going to come up with it, or maybe already has. We’re constrained by the laws of the physical world and the path of least resistance.

With art.. not so much. This doesn’t mean I’m for copyright. Because honestly most of everything ever created is crap. It is not deserving. Other things though will go on to be cultural touchstones centuries from now. But there is no way to differentiate at the time. We knew at the time that Beethoven’s 5th was a good piece of music, but we didn’t know half the world would be able to hum to opening bars a few centuries later.

I have no problem with something like the 5th being copyrighted. I have no problem with something of that level being given exclusive rights for distribution. They created something which will live on past their death with the entire world. No one else was going to write it. It may have been built on the techniques of others, but it was a singular creation by a singular person.

But, we have no idea what is going to last. What will be considered our cultural contribution. What is deserving and what is not. A few hundred years from now people may be able to hum Backstreet Boys for all we know. So, without evidence of greatness, which we can’t have, nothing deserves a copyright. But that doesn’t mean it may not be deserving of one.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Gutenberg and Protestantism.

Gutenberg did not just invent a printing press out of nowhere. He came to invent it (or remix it) out of a particular set of social circumstances. The medieval church did not run on a book. It ran on authority. The Pope ordained bishops, and spoke ex cathedra, and sent admonitory letters to his bishops. The bishops trained and ordained priests, and physically rode around their dioceses on horseback, on regular tours of inspection. Ordinary priests were not supposed to dispute doctrine in writing– they were supposed to supervise peasants, according to orders from above. Printing a bible, even a Latin bible, was a suspiciously Protestant kind of thing to do, because it implied that every country priest would read his bible, and decide whether or not to obey the bishop. Gutenberg was approximately the contemporary of John Wycliffe (and Wat Tyler and John Ball) in England, and of John Huss in Bohemia, and of Joan of Arc in France. Gutenberg’s printing press succeeded because there was intellectual baggage ready for it to carry.

Anonymous Coward says:

The reference to “flash of genius” as being one of the policy bases for patent law is inaccurate. Perhaps Justice William O. Douglas saw it as such, but his view was expressly rejected in the codification of patent law known as the Patent Act of 1952.

If anything, patent law has historically been associated with incremental improvements, as was the case with Edison and his improvement to filaments and methods for making such filaments. It is in recognition of this that Section 103 plays what is likely the most important role of the provisions contained in the current patent laws, with Section 112 following close behind.

Vic Kley says:

Everything is Remix

The point is what was possible BEFORE the invention.

Example: Take half a glasses lens for seeing at a distance and put it in the top of a glasses frame and another half of a lens for seeing close up and put it in the bottom of a glasses frame. What you then have is a Bifocal.

All the pieces existed and simply had to be slightly reshaped and assembled by someone who observed that we raise our eyes to look at a distance and lower them to look close up.


The inventor was Benjamin Franklin. The idea is exactly why we need patents because society needs the blessing that is the simple and seemingly obvious creation that changes the world.

These are the hardest inventions to conceive and the most valuable to have.

To be obvious you have to show that many people proposed or were proceeding to the solution before the inventor NOT AFTER.

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