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
    Slated, 13 Jul 2009 @ 9:12pm

    The "Right" to Own Knowledge

    @Anonymous Coward - Jul 4th, 2009 @ 3:22pm

    Reed: "There are no original works made by individuals in a vacuum is my point. This does go against the way you define "original" because it does not really exist in my mind."

    Anonymous Coward: "This is a really amazingly extreme viewpoint to me"

    I'm sure.

    Equally, it could be argued that your viewpoint is extreme, since it supports the notion that originality is defined as mere contribution to accreted works, and thus justifies exclusive ownership and control by those new contributors, denying both attribution and right of access (and/or other rights) to earlier contributors.

    Anonymous Coward: "you believe there is no such thing as an original creative work. Fine, but what, then, should be the implications of this? I take it that this inevitably leads you to intellectual property abolitionism, where you believe that everything created should therefore be in the public domain as soon as it's expressed."

    Yes, and the "terrible" outcome of this "travesty" would be ... a return to normality - the previous and long standing condition, where for centuries there was no such thing as Intellectual Property.

    And yet ... life went on. There was trade and commerce and invention. Society evolved, industry progressed, and technology was developed.

    But how could this have been possible, without "Intellectual Property"?

    How indeed.

    Anonymous Coward: "The reason I find this a hard viewpoint to understand is because I am acutely aware of the tremendous work involved in the creative process."

    "Work" does not bear any particular entitlements, other than the entitlement of wages paid for mutually agreed labour rendered. Once that labour has been rendered, and those wages have been paid, the employer's obligations have been fulfilled. You presume entitlement to remuneration in perpetuity, for a single act of labour, because the results of that labour may be utilised long after that labour has been completed. You presume too much.

    Anonymous Coward: "In what other field of endeavor would people work so hard only to have their work declared the property of the commons as soon as it was made?"

    In fact, in every "field of endeavour".

    Are you not paid a salary for the labour you render?

    What more do you expect? And what justification do you offer for those expectations?

    Anonymous Coward: "When I spend three years of my life [snip "hard work"] I have difficulty coming to the conclusion that I have done nothing original."

    Your difficulty in accepting the truth, does not negate that truth.

    Your expectations are simply unreasonable.

    People are not born with some divine knowledge, it must be acquired. The sources from where you acquire that knowledge are part of a chain reaching back to the dawn of man, and can be legitimately claimed as "property" by no one. Your contribution to that chain of knowledge is:

    1. Observation of the world around you
    2. Learning from knowledge passed down to you from others
    3. Deductions and conclusions drawn from 1 and 2 above

    Addressing your rights to ownership, with respect to the above:

    1. You have no inalienable right to claim exclusive ownership of that which you merely observe. If you did, then this would create the paradox of many people all having exclusive rights to the same observations. Additionally, it is profoundly unethical to make such a claim, since mere perception of an entity does not define the observer as its creator, much less its legitimate owner. You might just as easily argue that to observe another person is to own that person, or that to observe the moon through a telescope is to own the moon

    2. You have no inalienable right to claim exclusive ownership to knowledge passed to you from others, since the mere provenance of that knowledge precludes this possibility, and consensus for the transfer of these rights could never be reached, since it would require authorisation from every person on Earth, living or dead, published or unpublished, known or unknown, who may or may not have contributed in some way to this knowledge

    3. Your deductions may be your own, but again, you simply have no way of knowing if your conclusions have ever been reached before, but simply remain unpublished or lost in the annals of time. To claim exclusive ownership of these conclusions is therefore a palpable lie. The best you can irrefutably claim is "I also deduced that". Also, consider the obvious fact that even your deductive skills were merely taught to you by others. As humans, we are undoubtedly all unique, but equally every aspect of our being is influenced by others. We can not, and should not, make claims of "exclusivity" to knowledge, even if we produce this knowledge without any conscious awareness of any previous contribution, since lacking knowledge of provenance does not mean there is none

    And I feel I should expand a little on the subject of publishing or registering knowledge (copyrights and patents). I find this whole process deeply cynical at best - the idea that ownership can be legally assumed merely by the act of "staking a claim", much like a bunch of rabid gold prospectors rushing murderously towards a glint of gold in a rock face. This type of "claim" to ownership is utterly indefensible. It's barbaric, and has no bearing on true ownership. It affords no more inalienable rights than that of a predator hunting its prey.

    Are these the "rights" you seek?

    These are not entirely dissimilar to the rights demanded by slave owners.

    Should we not have abolished slavery?

    In fact, I have often drawn this comparison before, because I see very little distinction between the practise of physical slavery, and the equally reprehensible practise of intellectual slavery. Indeed, the latter may actually be more sinister, since it assumes ownership and control of that which touches all of us, not just an unfortunate few, and is a form of subjugation which travels silently and invisibly throughout all of society, tainting us and compromising our liberties, infecting us with the disease of intellectual monopoly, thus assuming ownership of our minds. More bluntly, Intellectual Property is a cancer.

    Anonymous Coward: "For you, it seems, any distinctions among these are meaningless, because every creative work falls in a single equivalence class: remixes of existing ideas. For you, there is no appreciation of the subtle originality and unique perspective that even a student just collecting the ideas of others can manage.

    You are attempting to inject colour into something that is clearly monochromatic. What part of the concept of "exclusivity" are you having difficulty with?

    Should this "subtle originality and unique perspective" be allowed to subjugate all those who facilitated it?

    Anonymous Coward: "Despite the "cultural Nazi-ism," all these works - these students' survey papers, my books, and so on - were able to be created. Others will be able to take my work and apply it in their own original ways, just like the students that will cite my papers in their surveys, the patent examiner who read my paper and used it to evaluate the novelty of another group's ideas, or the teacher who uses my book and puts his or her own unique spin on it in teaching a class. All this is legal and encouraged by the current system that you call Nazi-ism."

    Correct, and with that you have merely supported the counter-argument to your own position, since you clearly accept the provenance of your knowledge, and admit that the exclusivity afforded to you can only exist by being enforced by law.

    These are laws which I, and many others, consider to be profoundly unethical. Indeed, even these "IP" laws themselves concede to this fact, since they only offer these exclusive "rights" temporarily. If ownership of knowledge were truly defensible, then such rights would be in perpetuity, just like the rights to ownership of real property.

    In fact this "right" to exclusive ownership of knowledge is not a right at all, but is merely a temporary grant of privilege, offered as inducement to selfish; greedy hoarders, in conscious violation of all moral tenets to the contrary, and thus offered only for a limited time. This is the compromise of ethics the lawmakers conceded to, for the sake of accelerating industrial and social development. I contend that such development did not require acceleration, particularly if the result was a fatal compromise to our liberties, at the most basic level of all - revocation of the inalienable right of free access to mankind's cumulative knowledge.

    Anonymous Coward: "I'm sorry if, by selling the products of my own independent work rather than giving them all away, I'm stealing your culture."

    Your work is not "independent". No man, nor his knowledge, exists in isolation.

    And Intellectual Monopoly is not theft, since to proclaim it as such is to concede to the premise that knowledge may be owned in the first place. Intellectual Monopoly is more like kidnapping knowledge then holding it for ransom. This is the nature of academic exclusivity, and those unethical laws which support it.

    I also feel it prudent to point out that dissent against Intellectual Monopoly has nothing to do with money, as you misguidedly assume. I take no issue with you being paid for your work at all, but should payment depend on exclusive rights? If so, then how do you account for the sale of works licensed under the Creative Commons license or GPL, such as these?:

    http://www.law.duke.edu/cspd/comics/buy.html
    http://svnbook.red-bean.com/
    http://catb.o rg/esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/
    http://twobits.net/
    https://www.redhat.com/apps/download/
    http: //www.novell.com/products/desktop/
    http://www.mysql.com/products/enterprise/server.html
    http://www .qtsoftware.com/products

    Odd that all these commercial "knowledge" products should be sold, and yet not compromise our liberty with exclusive "rights". Apparently, such things are possible. In fact, it has always been thus. As I've already stated, "IP" is a comparatively modern disorder.

    Claiming that commerce and Freedom are mutually exclusive, is sheer hyperbole and propaganda, expounded by those seeking to pervert the meaning of Freedom, to marginalise as cheapskates those who would protect that Freedom from unethical exploitation.

    But nonetheless, on behalf of the rest of mankind, from whom you kidnapped their culture ... apology accepted.


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