On Creativity, Computers and Copyright

This commons just isn't very creative

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The strange death of remix culture

If you listen to the special pleading from a Commons supporter, the end of world really is at hand.

"There's a class of speech that's not possible at all without P2P technologies," the Commons' most prominent evangelist, Lawrence Lessig, told the Library of Congress recently. They're confident that an abundance of tools will lead to an abundance of creativity. This is a materialistic perspective which takes no account of history. Culture simply follows what's available to it. Much of the most life-affirming music we have is a product of two cultures that have lived through tragic histories: Jewish and African.

Or in a coda that Orson Welles wrote for himself, as Harry Lime in The Third Man-

"In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed - but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love. They had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

Even more troubling than the equation of material abundance and creativity, is the Commons supporters' idea of creativity itself.

One of the main motivations behind Creative Commons is creating a public domain repository of works that can be re-used. This seems an odd time to proselytize "Remix Culture", which has been on the retreat for ten years now.

But for a certain kind of computer nerd, for whom life is mediated through the phosphorous portal of the notebook LCD, it's only just begun.

In recent years, we've seen a return to authenticity, and a resounding rejection of smart aleckery and the ironic. Forms such as folk have lost their stigma, and full-on, early 70s rock is the most popular form of music for teenage English kids. There's nothing ironic about getting drunk, jumping and down, and falling over, so this is all very healthy. People simply ran out of patience with jumpy, glitchy cross cuts.

It's true that mash-ups have been a fun fad, but it's equally true that the pigopolists have done little to stop this flagrant copyright abuse - it's a novelty form that only increases appreciation of the original work of art. And originality is something computer evangelists have a really hard time getting to grips with. At times they only seem able to appreciate art "ironically", which is not appreciation at all, but a form of snobbery.

Your neurosis is not a lifestyle

"Remix Culture" isn't so much a celebration of culture as it is of the machines that make it possible.

It's also based on a lie, or if we're being charitable, a wilful mis-reading of history. All art borrows and recontextualizes, and it's impossible to keep up with this even say in one field, on a daily basis. In this avalanche of mutating cultural forms, no computer is required. We hear musicians borrow a rythmn, steal a style, and cover a song, all within the successful copyright framework as it stands today. By tying recontextualization to one very specific activity, the Commons supporters are either being intellectually dishonest, or showing the limitations of their own experience.

(I'm sorry guys, but if you want a shiny new computer, just go right ahead and buy one. You don't need to pose as Che Guevara on the way - just handover the money.).

Computer evangelists find all this difficult to grasp, because their world is limited by what the computer can do. So Lessig is undoubtedly sincere when he says that an abundance of technology leads to creativity, and restrictions on technology lead to cultural improvrishment. For him and people like him, it's probably true. But the rest of us don't define ourselves by the limitations of computer systems or computer networks.

It's a crippled view of human creativity. Beethoven doesn't need to be re-mixed - he needs a good orchestra. And Billie Holliday isn't enhanced by overlaying some beats. Nor is something special simply because it's passed through a DMA bus, or a Cisco router. History in the end judges what endures and what doesn't, so our responsibility - and it's such a burden! - is to celebrate what's good.

Ay, Carumba! Chileans get the Creative Commons makeover

As Dvorak points out, license proliferation is a very literal solution to what is already informal, human and spontaneous. The Mash Up kids just went ahead and, er... mashed, and they haven't had to pay dearly for their juxtapositions, as rights holders have recognized the benefits. Want to use a sample? Go ahead and use it. With a nudge and a wink, you'll probably get away with it. If you reach number one with that sample, expect to hear from the original artist. This isn't so hard to understand.

So where does creativity come from? Here's Lessig again, this time from a Slashdot interview from 2001:

"When the power of creativity has been granted to a much wider range of creators because of a change in technology the law of yesterday no longer makes sense."

Well, if he means that the law must adapt to keep pace with the social acceptance of technology, then he's quite correct: you'll have noticed there are no mules on the freeways these days. But the rationale he cites - with our emphasis added - is the key. For Larry, the gift of creativity really emanates from the machine. Although he grew up in the 1970s, punk must have passed him by completely; the punks proved all you needed was three chords and some imagination.

Meanwhile the Creative Commons has produced its own confirmation of these problems.

The repository itself is a testament to the art that's produced when unoriginal people are given computers. In fact, with a few exceptions, it's very hard to find anything creative there at all. It's hard not to think of it as the largest Clip Art library in the world, but one to which all good women and men must donate.

Two years ago I heard a similar call to arms, when a conference presenter urged everyone in the audience to devote half an hour each day to writing a weblog. That's half an hour less playing with the kids, taking the dog for a walk, or reading a book, but, he insisted, "half an hour isn't much to give up".

I was reminded of John F Kennedy's inaugural address: "Ask not what the internet can do for me, but what I can do for the internet"!

Defenders of the licensing approach say it simply adds to the range of choices an artist has available to them, which is quite true. But it's also slightly disingenuous to urge performers to forego the commercial option that might lift them out of poverty. The great Ray Charles died too late to discuss this with a Creative Commons enthusiast, but I'd love to have heard his response.

Perhaps they could have minted a special tin cup, with a CC logo, to get him started.

Why do the computer evangelists have such a hard time recognizing originality, when for the rest of us, our lives can be transformed in one sublime instant by hearing it?

And why the reluctance to think about social agreements that reward the gifted people who give us such pleasure?

Is it, as Jaron Lanier suggests, a fear of subjective experience? It's certainly cultural deafness on a deep and debilitating level.

Why the recourse to mechanism - the need to have every T crossed, every i dotted, and a license for every possible occasion?

Why the lack of patience or understanding with art forms that require those skills, such as following linear narratives? Parents with Asperger's children will recognize the symptoms instantly.

If this particular revolution requires us to adopt such a view of the world, then it has little prospect of success. Creative Commons is a cute pose, but the problems it seeks to remedy go unsolved. Finding a way to reward creators, which the project doesn't even attempt to address, remains more urgent as ever. ®

Related link

Dvorak: Creative Commons Humbug [PC Magazine]

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The Thudpucker Proxy
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