Brain Pickings

Everything is a Remix Part 4: System Failure

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A brief history of intellectual property, or why 1790 was more culturally progressive than 2012.

For the past year, Kirby Ferguson has been tracing the history and evolution of remix culture in his fantastic ongoing series Everything Is A Remix, with each episode tackling a different facet of collaborative creation. This week, the fourth and last part of the series, titled System Failure, finally makes its timely debut in the aftermath of SOPA and the peak of the ACTA debates.

From the origin of “intellectual property,” which suddenly transformed shared ideas into owned artifacts, to the psychological paradoxes of how we justify doing the copying but resent being copied, to the dirty business of opportunistic litigation, the film explores the aberrations of copyright and reminds us that the original Copyright Act of 1790 was entitled “An Act for the encouragement of learning” and the Patent Act of the same year was “An Act to promote the progress of the useful Arts,” upholding an ideal of a rich public domain with shared knowledge open to everyone.

Our system of law doesn’t acknowledge the derivative nature of creativity. Instead, ideas are regarded as property, as unique and original lots with distinct boundaries. But ideas aren’t so tidy. They’re layered, they’re interwoven, they’re tangled. And when the system conflicts with the reality… the system starts to fail.

The closing lines capture the urgency of the issue with remarkable eloquence:

We live in an age with daunting problems. We need the best ideas possible, we need them now, we need them to spread fast.

(As an evangelist of combinatorial creativity, Part 3 remains my favorite — do check it out.)

Kirby’s new project is called This Is Not A Conspiracy Theory and will do for politics what Everything Is A Remix did for remix culture. It’s currently raising funds on Kickstarter — I’m supporting it wholeheartedly, are you?

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