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.