From Bob Dylan to Steve Jobs, or how copyright law came to hinder the very thing it set out to protect.
Remix culture is something I think about a great deal in the context of combinatorial creativity, and no one has done more to champion the popular understanding of remix as central to creativity than my friend and documentarian extraordinaire Kirby Ferguson. So I’m enormously proud of Kirby’s recent TED talk about his Everything is a Remix project, exploring remix culture, copyright and creativity — watch and take notes:
The Grey Album is a remix. It is new media created from old media. It was made using these three techniques: copy, transform and combine. It’s how you remix. You take existing songs, you chop them up, you transform the pieces, you combine them back together again, and you’ve got a new song, but that new song is clearly comprised of old songs.
But I think these aren’t just the components of remixing. I think these are the basic elements of all creativity. I think everything is a remix, and I think this is a better way to conceive of creativity.
American copyright and patent laws run counter to this notion that we build on the work of others. Instead, these laws and laws around the world use the rather awkward analogy of property. Now, creative works may indeed be kind of like property, but it’s property that we’re all building on, and creations can only take root and grow once that ground has been prepared.
One thing to pay particularly close attention to are the many examples of how liberally and broadly Bob Dylan borrowed from other creators, appropriating, modifying, and building upon their work:
It’s been estimated that two thirds of the melodies Dylan used in his early songs were borrowed — this is pretty typical among folk singers.
Kirby gave his talk shortly before Dylan entered the news not as the perpetrator but as the subject of fabulism, by science writer Jonah Lehrer — a pseudo-scandal on which NPR offered perhaps the only truly thoughtful commentary amidst a sea of blood-thirsty sensationalism:
This is the essence of the popular arts in America: Be a magpie, take from everywhere, but assemble the scraps and shiny things you’ve lifted in ways that not only seem inventive, but really do make new meanings. Fabrication is elemental to this process — not fakery, exactly, but the careful construction of a series of masks through which the artist can not only speak for himself, but channel and transform the vast and complicated past that bears him or her forward.
Certainly, the integrity standards of science journalism and the popular arts can, and likely should, be very different. Nonetheless, this parallel — in which Dylan so clearly build his voice by borrowing and appropriating the ideas of others to his own ends of creative expression — is enough to give one pause.
The additive nature of creativity and innovation is, of course, something both history in general and individual inventors in particular can speak to. Kirby cites Henry Ford, who echoes the story of Marconi and the invention of radio:
Mark Twain, unapologetic as ever, put it best: “All ideas are second-hand.”
For more on remix culture and combinatorial creativity, see Dancing About Architecture: A Little Book of Creativity and the 1939 gem A Technique for Producing Ideas.