Content Creators: Control Is An Illusion And That's A Good Thing

from the great-quote dept

Folks who hang out on HackerNews may have seen an interesting little debate flare up recently in a couple of threads. It started when a guy named Dustin Curtis announced a new simple blogging tool which he called Svbtle. He originally designed it for himself, then decided to make it into a wider offering, but is only letting “vetted” bloggers use it, rather than opening it up. This rubbed some folks the wrong way, and another guy, Nate Weinert, decided to build his own open source version that looks similar and has the same basic functionality, and released it to the world under the name Obtvse.

Then the debate raged in the two HN threads over the basic ethics of the decisions by both individuals — Dustin for locking up his system and Nathan for copying Dustin’s idea. It won’t surprise many where I come down on this. History has shown that copying often leads to useful innovation and can help expand a market. I find arguments to the contrary somewhat frustrating, because they seem to argue that there’s some sort of moral right in an idea — something that just doesn’t make that much sense to me. If others can do more with your idea, why should we stop them? Now, some argue that Nate didn’t do more with the idea, but I disagree. He made it open and usable — by definition doing more with it. Furthermore, in doing that, he made it much easier for others to build on it as well.

But, really, the reason I’m writing this post is a fascinating must-read comment by a guy named Frank Chimero, responding to a blog post by Daniel Howells about this whole back and forth. The comment is a really excellent and succinct explanation of how creativity works and the fact that once you’ve created something and released it to the world, you’ve lost control over it — and pining over that lost control is a fool’s errand:

I think once you publish something, you lose control of it. At worst, you inspire mockery and parody. At best, you become material for future work, because what you’ve made is successful, interesting, or relevant. Usually, it is both.

All work produces spill-over repercussions that usually go against the will of the work’s creator. The creator wishes to retain authorship and control the work, while those in the culture wish to use, transform, and remix it. If the work is truly successful, it will defy authorship and turn into a shared experience for everyone. Those works are the hardest to control, because they diffuse, and spread wide by permeating into the air. The become a shorthand for those who make or enjoy similar work, becoming a shared vocabulary.

The situation requires things from both those who create the work, and those who wish to use it.

For the initial creator, they must resign most control upon publication, especially on the internet. Their work will be used to say and do things they don’t intend. Ideas, in truth, go further when others carry them, and this usually means they will go in directions the original author did not intend or imagine. For instance, I’ve had a quote of mine (“People ignore design that ignores people.”) taken out of context and used to justify two completely contradictory design methods. So it goes.

For those that use the things made by others, they should credit where possible, and have their work be transformative in some way. They can carry the ideas of others, but they must to take it further or a new direction. Then, they are obliged share alike. To not do both is to go against the goodwill initiated by the work’s creator.

And for both, we should recognize that all creative processes use materials from those who came before us, and respect the meaningful influence of others. We’re part of a long line of people who make things. It is a privilege to get to use the work of others in our own.

So many excellent points in such a short comment. In fact, economic studies have actually shown, in fairly great detail, that it’s exactly these kinds of “spillovers” that lead to economic growth (in fact, they were regularly called spillovers, until the economic language finally clarified a bit further). The fact that you can build on ideas is a natural resource that only expands. It’s not limited by scarcity, like many natural resources. It’s the nature of an idea to be infinitely copyable at no cost that acts as a resource multiplier that leads to economic growth. That’s what’s so powerful about it.

It’s natural that the originator may get upset about how some of this works out, but contrary to the claims of some, if someone does something with your work, it doesn’t do anything to the original. It just expands the overall market. You lose control, but that’s not bad. The things that you did are based on the fact that others lost control of things as well.

Oh, and for a bit of irony, I only found this quote because Dustin Curtis highlighted it on his own (Svbtle) blog. Yes, the guy who had his work copied chose to highlight this particular comment… and add “great artists steal” to the end. Seems that he recognizes how all this works and perhaps isn’t too upset about how things went down.

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Comments on “Content Creators: Control Is An Illusion And That's A Good Thing”

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el_segfaulto (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I create things that are worth stealing every working day of my life. I also donate a ton of the code to open source projects (as long as I’m happy with my implementation of it). When I see my work on TPB or whatnot I can’t drum up the enthusiasm to really care. And if somebody “steals” my UI design (not bloody likely, in my case) I consider to be an compliment rather than a crime against humanity. Then again engineers create, lawyers litigate.

Greevar (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

You keep using that word, despite the fact that is has been logically and legally proven that it does not apply. Thus, it makes the rest of your point irrelevant. Although, your faulty appeal to moral relativism also devalues your argument as well.

Nevertheless, programmers don’t sell code. Programmers sell their time creating code. Selling code would be a fool’s errand, as it is described in the article above. Why would you try to sell something you can’t control? You might as well try to sell air.

TDR says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:


*Inigo voice* You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.

In other words, you cannot steal what cannot be diminished. Write it over and over again until it sinks in, boyo. Just like how you likely had to write “I will not shill” a few dozen times on the teacher’s blackboard after class when you were a kid.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Oh, joy. We have a moron.

You do know what the word “copy” means, right?

‘Cuz Duchamp didn’t copy anything. Ever. His schtick was “readymades.” Items that already exist in a non-artistic context, presented in an artistic context.

He didn’t copy the Mona Lisa. He drew a mustache on a postcard he purchased.

He didn’t build his own toilet. He didn’t copy the designs for a bike and a stool. He did not rebuild, recreate, or copy these things, because that would have diluted his entire point.

Get back to class.

tqk says:

Re: Re:

Great artists steal – but they don’t copy. They steal the vibe, the feeling, the aesthetic, but they don’t just copy.

I know it’s hard for you to understand Mike. Maybe one day, when you create something worth stealing… you will understand!

Why was this comment “flagged by the community”? It’s no more foolish or offensive than most of the rest of the copyright maximalists’ troll posts here.

As for the AC’s comment, which “copy” did you mean, the noun or the verb? You can copy, after which you will have a copy. It appears Dustin (Svbtle) gets this (belatedly). Why don’t you? Nate (Otvse) didn’t steal anything. He built upon an idea that was out there. I’d think that’s a good thing. We’re all richer from both their efforts. Dustin may now take Nate’s ideas and build upon them. Should Nate complain about that?

Jay (profile) says:

Another point in that direction

Mike, you disappoint me…

This would have been an excellent time to bring up how our Forefathers thought about ideas.

How about Thomas Jefferson?

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.

Or how about the meme of Al Gore and the internet?

Perhaps we should go deeper.

We should look at how we rethink IP completely so that it’s better to create more work and more artists.

The point can’t be reinforced enough. Ideas are meant to be spread and even if they’re “taken” the good ones rise to the top while the bad ones are left by the way side.

jupiterkansas (profile) says:

There’s a word for someone giving me new ideas. It’s called learning. We’re taught to copy from birth. It’s how we are raised. It’s in our genetic code.

Then at some point we’re supposed to turn that off. Don’t do what that other person is doing. That’s stealing their ideas. Coping is bad. Anything you do must be wholly original and unlike anything that has ever existed before.

Why? Because someone is trying to make money doing that thing they just taught you how to do, and they’re scared you’ll do it better.

Suja (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Then at some point we’re supposed to turn that off. Don’t do what that other person is doing. That’s stealing their ideas. Coping is bad. Anything you do must be wholly original and unlike anything that has ever existed before.

Yep, it happened to me when I was little, I grew up being told sharing is good and then I turned 10 or so and was gang raped by artistocrats cause I copied something to make fanart That I showed them without permission.

What was really funny about it, I did use their material better than they did, much MUCH better, and I did a whole LOT more with it, too.

I’ve also made totally original stuff before, it failed… badly.

Why? Cause I couldn’t tell anyone what it was supposed to be, I had to invent whole new terms and words and everything to describe things, it was set in alien environments with extremely alien creatures nobody knew.

Totally original, and totally useless, because nobody could understand.

Art is *useless* without understanding, without some sort of background, a feeling, a memory, some something or other to give it strength.

It’s like why would I have a couple of random noname nobody businessmen fighting over a sack of coins to some yahoo singing a money song they pulled out of their arse when I can have Mr Krabs and Scrooge McDuck fighting over the same sack of coins with Pink Floyd’s “Money” song in the background?

Which do you think will get more attention? More hits on the search engines? More understanding? I don’t think I need to tell anyone who those two characters are, nor what that song is.

Same that I don’t need to tell anyone what the sun is, the sky is, the sea is .etc

Understanding >>>>>>> Originality

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“There’s a word for someone giving me new ideas. It’s called learning. We’re taught to copy from birth. It’s how we are raised. It’s in our genetic code.”

Yes, but we are taught to mimic only to get things right, then we are expected to exceed, not just wallow in replicating the acts of those before us.

Monkeys can be trained for that. Are you a monkey?

kyle clements (profile) says:

I think once you publish something, you lose control of it. At worst, you inspire mockery and parody. At best, you become material for future work


At worst, you are ignored.

Mockery and parody are good things. It shows that you have made enough of an impact for someone to respond to your work. That’s culture.

As a content creator, I can understand the desire for keeping a tight grip on control, since a few early teasers can greatly influence how later work is perceived, and lies spread so much faster than truth. But I believe there are right ways and wrong ways to do this.

Please forgive me the shameless self promotion that follows:

I’m working on such an art project myself right now, called the “DRM Box” which is an example where control over how the art is seen is extremely important.

The project is elaborate box that sits over a photograph and only lets you view the art after putting in money, promising to give you a minute of view time, but randomly crapping out some time after 30 seconds.

From this kind of a description, I probably sound like a greedy money-grubbing artzy douchebag, and it sounds like something you’d rather not see.

But if it is presented to you under a different tone, (something more like this: ) the whole thing seems like a different project. Having some control over the presentation is important for the success or failure of what I’m doing.

The wrong way to control how I set this tone would be write nasty letters to everyone who took me seriously and wrote about this in a dry, humourless way.
The right way (I hope) is to release the tone-setting videos first, then present the objects once that foundation has been set.

In the case of software, if you want to keep it private, then keep it private, don’t share it with others. And if someone else is able to replicate what you’ve done without seeing the source, and they can do this for free, then what you’ve done can’t be all that special and you have no right to complain. And if people start using the other platform and ignoring yours, that’s the penalty you pay for locking up culture.

Watchit (profile) says:

I’ve never understood why people insist they must be paid, just because they thought of an idea first.

Ideas are built off each other, kind of like math equations.

Gauss didn’t have to pay Newton (or Leibniz depending on who you ask) when he used calculus to derive Gauss’s Law. Neither was he sued for actually using Coulombs Law within Gauss’s Law either.

If they treated math equations like they treated “patentable Ideas” today, I could only imagine where we’d be scientifically.

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

A good time to discuss the post-scarcity society

There are real or looming scarcities of fossil fuels, clean water, etc. But for many other things, we are currently, or are capable of, producing far more than anyone needs. So I like to expand the discussion to envisioning a society where not just content producers but everyone needs to be prepared to have what they do copied and done more cheaply than what they are doing themselves. Let’s discuss a world where the cost/price of everything continues to go down and how we will adjust. We are in the midst of an economic revolution comparable to the Industrial Revolution and it’s time for some new economic thinking.

Here’s what I wrote about it two years ago:

Hypercompetition, Scarcity, and the Economics of Music

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: A good time to discuss the post-scarcity society

“Create a great live act, and that can be copied as well.
… the sheer number and variety of tribute bands has exploded, branching out to modern-era acts such as Pearl Jam, the Dave Matthews Band, and even the Arctic Monkeys.”

Gotta call bullshit on this one Suzanne. A tribute act, no matter how good, is not the same as seeing an artist who really matters to you.

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

Re: Re: A good time to discuss the post-scarcity society

Gotta call bullshit on this one Suzanne. A tribute act, no matter how good, is not the same as seeing an artist who really matters to you.

It depends. If the real act is 10X more expensive than the tribute act, you may be happy with the tribute. And if it’s the songs that you really love, then you might actually be happier with a younger version performing them than seeing an aging band performing its own material. There are quite a few bands doing recreations of albums recorded by others and doing well. In other words, there’s a good market for them.

That’s my point. Just because you originated the music, that doesn’t mean you’ll be the only one to make money from it. If there is money to be made, others will come out and copy it and sell it too.

Richard says:

I think its a problem to with the capitalistic system. Anything which can generate money is commodified and so the creator themselves only feels they should make money from it. Then there are competitors who will want to benefit from the money the commodity can generate without having to spend the effect on creating their own idea. It means the competitor is at an advantage over the original creator. This is just how competition in the business world works and is the reason that copyright and patents were created to begin with.
Things nowadays have gone completely insane, the laws are so incredibly complex and seem to be made intentionally to confuse and trick people who haven’t spent years learning them.
In a perfect world we would allow these ideas to flourish, but people need to make a living somehow. Doing things for free is simply incompatible with our system of trade and commerce.

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

In a perfect world we would allow these ideas to flourish, but people need to make a living somehow. Doing things for free is simply incompatible with our system of trade and commerce.

The alternative, which I’d like to see more discussion of, is how to change the nature of work and getting one’s basic necessities provided for so that one isn’t dependent on making money from one’s creative activities. I know that many musicians would be happy to give their music away for free as long as they can get housing, food, medical care, etc., for free too.

I think we are headed for a world where everyone is creative and makes their own art/creativity (or copies it from elsewhere) and no one gets paid for it. Smart machines/apps are opening up creative creation to so many more people allowing an explosion in user generated content. And I don’t buy the idea that this new system allows the talented people to flourish and everyone else to fall by the wayside. I don’t see a strong correlation between talent and commercial potential. If that were the case, we wouldn’t have reality TV stars making so much money.

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