The Myth Of Original Creators

from the creativity-is-built-upon-others-ideas dept

We recently wrote about how many different sources Shakespeare used in writing King Lear, some of which he apparently copied verbatim. However, it seems quite likely that what Shakespeare did with those words created something wholly unique and valuable (at least, it's withstood the tests of time). Yet, this idea that taking the works of others and doing something with them to make them new and wonderful seems to be an anathema to the "true believers" in copyright, who insist that creativity is about being wholly original, and almost never about building on the works of those who came before. Yet, there's almost no evidence to support this. Nearly any creative work can be shown to be built upon the works of those who came before (hell, even our own copyright law is copied from others').

Law professor Peter Friedman recently had a few interesting blog posts that helped highlight this. First, he noted that the very notion of an author as the originator of a new work is a relatively recent phenomenon, and part of the Romantic Movement. However, prior to that, the view was much more akin to what we're actually seeing today with online tools of creation: "creative endeavors are derivative and collaborative, that originality is not the product of isolated genius but of, well, remixing."

He then goes on to discuss the blues musician Robert Johnson -- considered by many to be the "quintessential" Blues musician. However, a recent study into Johnson's work suggest that his fame and renown is basically an accident of history. Some British musicians heard Johnson's music, and since they'd never heard it before, they credited him for it, even though he was mainly copying (and building on) the work of others:
Conceptions of Robert Johnson's work highlight the context dependent nature of notions of originality. Originality is yet another characteristic of copyrightability that is not always easy to delineate in actual contexts of creation. However, what might seem original to those in one context may not seem as original in other contexts. Consequently, within the context of African American audiences of the 1920s and 1930s, Johnson's work probably did not seem startlingly original in the way that it did to British and other musicians and audiences listening to Johnson's music, often in relative isolation, in the 1950s and 1960s. This later audience was largely removed from the original context of other music that was prevalent at the time Johnson produced his music or able to listen to a limited and likely biased sample of such music. For early African American blues listeners, what seemed original and interesting was very different that what seemed interesting and original to the largely white blues fans that were the major force behind the blues revival in the 1950s and 1960s. For the latter, romantic conceptions about the blues were closely tied to notions of authenticity that are often unsuited to musical creation in living musical traditions. As a result, what is perceived as original may depend in significant part on the contexts within which listeners hear music.
Friedman also points back to another recent post where he discusses the nature of content creation, based on a blog post by Rene Kita. In it, she points out that remixing and creating through collaboration and building on the works of others has always been the norm. It's what we do naturally. It's only in the last century or so, when we reached a means of recording, manufacturing and selling music -- which was limited to just those with the machinery and capital to do it, that copyright was suddenly brought out to "protect" such things.

But, today, with the rise of the internet, and the ability for anyone to perform those roles, we run smack dab into conflicting interests. People still want to create the way they always have, but the industry of the last century, that has relied on copyright law to make its product seem different and "original" freaks out about this ongoing content creation:
Culture is a conversation. Every act of culture is a reply to something, a restatement, correction, modification, reworking. Lawyers are constantly debating how much modfication is required to make a work legal. Thus, you may 'create' a new instance of The Blues(TM Martin Scorsese), by shuffling the notes and words around by a set amount. Shuffle too little and you're in trouble with the law. Shuffle too much and the purists start screaming rape. Still, artists are trained to recognize what is a new song and what a version and their publishing companies have experts to deal with these matters. And there we enter the crux of the matter:

Copyright law is corporate law. Or it used to be.

Previously, it took heavy investment to publish art, music, writing, so it was always done by companies and professionals. Today, squirting anything into a blog is an act of publishing. The legalese you signed by clicking when you started your blog forbids any use of copyrighted material that you don't own. Suddenly, instead of plain ordinary citizens entitled to sing "Poops, I did it again" or tape Brad Pitt's face in a toilet bowl onto a postcard to a friend, we are all professional artists required to Create Art from Scratch. Because we are no longer just having a conversation, in which we quote from everything we have seen and heard without any thought of Creation and Originality. Your piddling little blog is a Publishing Enterprise held to the same legal standards as Time Warner Inc, except that you do not have the funds to pay for any borrowings.

You have been muzzled.

This is why people are angry. Their normal modes of expression have been turned into a crime. They know they are only safe from prosecution because they are small fry - unless someone decides to make an example of you. Thus, any time you post some photoshoppery or a musical mash-up you risk having it summarily deleted and your account cancelled for criminal cultural activities.
It's nice to see more and more people recognizing and speaking out about these things. The idea that there is a single "author" or "creator" who deserves to get money any time anyone else builds upon his or her works is something that should be seen as increasingly ridiculous as people recognize that all works are created based on the works of others, and it's inherently silly to try to charge everyone to pay back each and every one of their influences in creating a new work.

Filed Under: creativity, original creator, ownership, romantic

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  1. identicon
    Doctor Strange, 6 Jul 2009 @ 12:12am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Original my ...

    You are obviously an intelligent person but you do not understand the context of my debate around IP.

    I appreciate it and I do understand the context, I just think it's anathema.

    You say there is no such thing as cultural Nazism, but their are clearly many example of IP being used as a tool to suppress freedom of expression. Clearly many examples of Patent abuse. Obvious misuse of the copyright system to bully companies into consolidation or sell-out.

    In a nation with three hundred fifty million people and a western world with billions more, I can find numerous examples of any law being abused. Can you demonstrate at all that these particular abuses are out of line with those that would be predicted by just the law of large numbers? That these laws are being abused more than any other?

    You argument is very quaint, but it is on a micro level where IP theory and law has little impact unless you consider how information is controlled at a University level. The "Ivory Towers" of information control and how that hinders advancement is yet another debate about IP theory and law.

    I think you're seeing a conspiracy where there isn't one. You act as if professors (which are some of the free-est agents of any employed profession) and universities are in some sort of grand collusion to control information, when mostly they're just self-interested actors trying to get ahead. Have you ever worked and interacted with academics? I have, for more than a decade. The idea that professors would be able to get along within their own departments well enough to form "ivory towers of information control" is laughable, and the idea that they would ever give the administration enough time or credence to do it on a university-wide scale is even more unlikely.

    The concept that we need to protect people's ideas and works is really ridiculous in my mind. The idea that you need to protect your works is also ridiculous. You create, you get paid, end of story. Why do we need to extend special protections? Without solid reasoning there is none.

    For some things I created, I got paid. For some of them, I got paid far less than market rates, partially because I retained the rights. I spent three years of my life writing a book for which I was paid not a single cent during the writing. And why should anyone pay me for something of dubious value? The best way to find out how much something is worth is certainly to try to market it and see if people want it. Are you paid on a salary? How do you trace every dollar you're paid to the dollars you create for your employer? If you can't, why should they be paying you?

    If someone could reasonably assess the value of my work just from reading it and pay me a lump sum for it, I'm sure they would. Sometimes they do, but with creative things it's very hard to judge value in advance, in part precisely because they are original.

    Your ascertain that you are stealing my culture is FALSE.

    I cannot parse this sentence.

    Your pro-IP position in effect is enslaving our culture so that corporations can make a buck. This connects into corporations and the fact that they have legal personhood and how it effects the balance of power in our society.

    Ah, this old trope. As if corporations were some golem wholly independent of the people that constitute them. People ally themselves in and with corporations, of their own free will, for their own reasons. I'm sorry if you don't like this, but it's really a consequence of free association.

    In the end I fear you think you have created your books, papers, etc. all by yourself. In reality know that every part of your existence is because of countless people before you. Your thoughts are OWED to the human race just as your ancestors offered their thoughts up to you.

    First off, I among anyone acknowledges the intellectual heritage of my own work I spend a lot of time in EndNote citing it. However, I did create them all by myself. I was sitting in my house, at my computer, typing the thoughts all by myself. Nobody else was there. I was doing the work. I no more owe my work to the human race than anyone working in tangible goods, for the same reasons.

    IP theory and its implementations seek to control these thoughts, to created walls between information, to thrust the individual above the context that has allowed him/her to exist. It is an extensive of selfishness and a new modern form of slavery.

    Yes, because God forbid individuals try to rise above the collective for their own gain. I'm not sure if you've noticed, but the United States is not really a collectivist society. And I should hope that your criticism goes beyond just intellectual property to all property, so at least your arguments will be consistent. I suppose your worldview is Marxist or Communist, then? I have no problem with this, but I'm not sure why you weren't just up front with this in the first place.

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