A wise man once told me that creating a wholly new and original work of art is nigh impossible these days. We have been creating art, music and told stories since the dawn of time. Over the years we have mostly exhausted the pool of original ideas out there. Most people find this out the hard way. I would be a rich man if I had a penny for each time someone come up with a “revolutionary” awesome idea, and then googled it to find out it was already done, cloned, copied and subverted. Then it died, was revived in the 60’s, went out of style in the 80’s and now it’s coming back.
Not only that, but we also have this thing called simultaneous invention. I wrote about this phenomenon before so you can check out that post if you missed it. TLDR version is that scientists and technologists who never met or even heard about each other can often come up with very similar ideas around the same time. For example there seem to have been at least six different inventors of the thermometer and no less than nine claimants of the invention of the telescope. Yes, I’m not shitting you – go click on that link, and read Kevin Kelly’s post I’m referencing. This is just how science works. Or rather, this is how human mind works.
This idea of simultaneity applies to art, music and literature as well. Creative minds will often come up with similar stylistic approaches, styles and sensibilities independently.
So on one hand we can see that all artists are influenced by the things they have seen in the past, the works of their mentors and idols and the classical pieces they studied. Their minds are pre-loaded with existing templates upon which their draw. Every piece of creative work they produce somehow tainted by these experiences. On the other hand there is a tendency for independent artists to coverage onto similar ideas from different directions.
Everything we create as a species is by definition is redundant and derivative.
Creative process is less about originality, but about taking the existing building blocks and arranging them in interesting ways. Similarly, we judge art, music and literature not on how original it is but rather whether it conveys a poignant message, provokes a reaction or evokes an emotional response. No one really cares that the individual components are not original as long as the end product offers something more than merely the sum of it’s parts. Borrowing, referencing, adapting and outright emulation are all fair game. They have always been.
We currently live in a wonderful age of digital media where information can be copied, remixed and mashed up almost effortlessly by just about anyone. In the past, an artist who wanted to “borrow” from another work had to go through the process of re-creating that element. Today, he can simply copy and paste it. Now we have people who create original work that derivative – composed solely from bits and pieces “borrowed” elsewhere, edited and mashed up together. Let me show you an example – here is a video which was made by stitching together short clips from various movies and TV shows and arranging them to sync up with a background beat:
You could argue whether or not something like this constitutes art. It is creative, entertaining and awesome though. I would also argue that it is good precisely because it steals and borrows content from elsewhere. It works, because each of the short clips used to create the video triggers a personal memory. It not only bombards us with nostalgia but also breathes a new life into these half forgotten, cherry picked moments of awesomeness. It is certainly more than merely the sum of it’s parts – and as such it is valuable, and worth seeing.
Sadly, under current copyright regime such remixes and mash-ups are un-poducts. Legally ambiguous at best, illegal at worst. It’s basically like this – these derivative works are relatively safe, because it would be too expensive for a copyright holder to sue it’s creator for using a 5 second clip somewhere in the video. Also, if they do sue they are not guaranteed to win. Depending on the context, the length of the clip used, and the intent the creator could sometimes successfully argue that his work is protected under the fair use clause. Maybe…
An obvious solution here would be to obtain the permission from the copyright holder. Have you ever tried to do it though? How do you get a permission to use a 5 second video or audio clip from a major motion picture or album? You don’t. You will be lucky if the copyright holders even acknowledge your existence by laughing in your face and showing you middle finger. They probably won’t even do that though – they will ignore you.
So while creating mashups is easy, legalizing them is not. What is worse, this type of creative expression is becoming more and more common as the music/video editing technology available to private consumers improves, and their internet bandwidth increases. On one hand we have masses who want to create and publish their own legally ambiguous mashups. On the other hand we have media industry lobbying the governments all over the world to tighten copyright law and crack down on the internet as a one big tool for piracy. These two movements are on a collision course and that worries me. How do we reconcile this?
I have said it before and I’ll say it again – our copyright law is obsolete and outdated. It is an archaic relic from an era that is long gone and will never return. It had an important role in the past, and parts of it still have use today. But right now it is more of a nuisance than anything else. Tomorrow it will become a hindrance instead – it will be our cultural ball and chain.
I tell you this – we are moving away from physical media. Our art, music, literature and cinema can now be accessed digitally. They are no longer tied to physical anchors that inhibit their distribution. Anything you digitize becomes a virtual commodity – an idea. It can be copied at the speed of thought. This will only become more ambiguous in the future when the line between man and the machine starts to fade, and when human consciousness will no longer become independent of the physical shell that contains it. Can virtual commodities consumed by virtual beings that exist in virtual worlds be controlled using laws that were written to control physical media? Can we police digital minds to make sure they are not using copyrighted thoughts?