The act of creation is surrounded by a fog of myths Myths that creativity comes by an inspiration that original creations break the molds that they are products of geniuses and appear as quickly as electricity can heat filaments But creativity isn’t magic It happens by applying ordinary tools of thoughts to excisting materials And the soil from which we grow our creations is something we scorn and misunderstand even though it gives us so much, and that’s copying Put simply copying is how we learn We can’t introduce anything new until we’re fluent with the language of our domain and we do that through emulation For instance all artists spend their formative years producing derivative work Bob Dylan’s first album contained eleven cover songs Richard Pryor began his stand-up career by making a not so good imitation of Bill Cosby And Hunter S. Thompson retyped the The Great Gatsby just to get the feel of writing a great novel Nobody starts out original Need copying until the foundation of knowledge and understanding And after that… things can get interesting After we’ve grounded ourselves in the funtamentals through copying it’s then possible to create something new with transformation Taking an idea and creating variations This is time consuming tinkering but it can eventually produce a breakthrough James Watt created a major improvement to the steam engine because he was assigned to repair a Thomas Newcomen’s steam engine He then spent twelve years developing his version Christopher Latham Sholes modeled his typewriter keyboard on a piano This design slowly evolved over five years into the QWERTY layout we still use today And Thomas Edison din’t invent the light bolb His first patent was “Improvment in electric lamps” but he did produced the first commercially viable lamp after trying 6000 diferent materials for the filament These are all major inventions but they’re not original ideas so much as tipping points on a continuous line of invention by many diferent people But the most dramatic results can happen when ideas are combined By connecting ideas together creative leaps can by made producing some of history’s great breakthroughs Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press was inventent around 1440 but almost all of its components had been around for centuries Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company din’t invent the assembling line interchangeable parts or even the automobile itself But he combined all these elements in 1908 to produce the first mass market cat, the Model T And the internet slowly grew up for several decades as networks and protocols merged It finally hit critical mass in 1991 when Tim Berners-Lee added the World Wide Web These are the basic elements of creativity copy, transform, and combine And the perfect illustration of all these at work is the story of the devices we’re using right now So let’s travel back to the dawn of the personal computer revolution and look at the company that started it all Xerox Xerox invented the modern personal computer in the early seventies The Alto was a mouse-driven system with a graphical user interface Bear in mind that a popular personal computer of this era was operated with switches and if you flipped them in the right order you got to see blinking lights The Alto was way ahead of its time Eventually Apple got a load of the Alto and later released not one but two computers with graphical interfaces the Lisa and its more successful follow-up, The Macintosh The Alto was never a commercial product but Xerox did release a system based on it in 1981 the Star 8010 two years before The Lisa three years before the Mac It was the Star and the Alto that served as the foundation for the Macintosh The Xerox Star used a desktop metaphor with icons for documents and folders It had a pointer scroll bars and pop-up menus These were huge innovations and the Mac copied every one of them But it was the first combination it incorporated that set the Mac on a path towards long-term success Apple aimed to merge the computer with the household appliance The Mac was to be a simple device like a TV or a stereo This was unlike the Star, which was intended for professional use and vastly different from the cumbersome command-based systems that dominated the era The Mac was for the home and this produced a cascade of transformations Firstly, Apple removed one of the buttons on the mouse to make its novel pointing device less confusing Then they added the double-click for opening files The Star used a separate key to open files The Mac also let you drag icons around and move and resize windows The Star didn’t have drag-and-drop you moved and copied files by selecting an icon pressing a key then clicking a location And you resized windows with a menu The Star and the Alto both featured pop-up menus but because the location of these would move around the screen the user had to continually re-orient The Mac introduced the menu bar which stayed in the same place no matter what you were doing And the Mac added the trash can to make deleting files more intuitive and less nerve-wracking And lastly through compromise and clever engineering Apple managed to pare down the Mac’s price to $2,500 Still pretty expensive but much cheaper than the $10,000 Lisa or the $17,000 Star But what started it all was the graphical interface merged with the idea of the computer as household appliance The Mac is a demonstration of the explosive potential of combinations The Star and the Alto on the other hand are the products of years of elite research and development They’re a testament to the slow power of transformation But of course they too contain the work of others The Alto and the Star are evolutionary branches that lead back to the NLS System which introduced windows and the mouse to Sketchpad the first interactive drawing application and even back to the Memex a concept resembling the modern PC decades before it was possible The interdependence of our creativity has been obscured by powerful cultural ideas but technology is now exposing this connectedness We’re struggling legally ethically and artistically to deal with these implications and that’s our final episode Part 4 What if Xerox never decided to pursue the graphical interface? Or Thomas Edison found a different trade? What if Tim Berners-Lee never got the funding to develop the World Wide Web? Would our world be different? Would we be further behind? History seems to tell us things wouldn’t be so different Whenever there’s a major breakthrough there’s usually others on the same path Maybe a bit behind maybe not behind at all Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz both invented calculus around 1684 Charles Darvin proposed The theory of evolution by natural selection of course but Alfred Russel Wallace had pretty much the same idea at pretty much the same time And Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray filed patents for the telephone on the same day We call this multiple discovery the same innovation emerging from different places Science and invention is riddled with it but it can also happen in the arts In film for instance we had three Coco Chanel movies released within nine months of each other Around 1999 we had a quartet of sci-fi movies about artificial reality Even Charlie Kaufman’s unusually original film Synecdoche New York bears an uncanny resemblance to Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder They’re both the stories of men who suddenly become wealthy and start recreating moments of their lives even going so far as to recreate the recreations And actually this the video you’re watching was written just before the New Yorker published a Malcolm Gladwell story about Apple, Xerox and the nature of innovation We’re all building with the same materials And sometimes by coincidence we get similar results but sometimes innovations just seem inevitable The genes in our bodies can be traced back over three-and-a-half billion years to a single organism: LUCA, the Last Universal Common Ancestor. As Luca reproduced, its genes copied and copied and copied and copied, sometimes with mistakes — they transformed. Over time this produced every one of the billions of species of life on earth. Some of these adopted sexual reproduction, combining the genes of individuals, and altogether, the best-adapted life forms prospered. This is evolution. Copy, transform and combine. And culture evolves in a similar way, but the elements aren’t genes, they’re memes — ideas, behaviors, skills. Memes are copied, transformed, and combined. And the dominant ideas of our time are the memes that spread the most. This is social evolution. Copy, transform and combine. It’s who we are, it’s how we live, and of course, it’s how we create. Our new ideas evolve from the old ones. But 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. Everything is a Remix Part Four: System Failure For almost our entire history ideas were free. The works of Shakespeare, Gutenberg, and Rembrandt could be openly copied and built upon. But the growing dominance of the market economy, where the products of our intellectual labors are bought and sold, produced an unfortunate side-effect. Let’s say a guy invents a better light bulb. His price needs to cover not just the manufacturing cost, but also the cost of inventing the thing in the first place. Now let’s say a competitor starts manufacturing a competing copy. The competitor doesn’t need to cover those development costs so his version can be cheaper. The bottom line: original creations can’t compete with the price of copies. In the United States the introduction of copyrights and patents was intended to address this imbalance. Copyrights covered media; patents covered inventions. Both aimed to encourage the creation and proliferation of new ideas by providing a brief and limited period of exclusivity, a period where no one else could copy your work. This gave creators a window in which to cover their investment and earn a profit. After that their work entered the public domain, where it could spread far and wide and be freely built upon. And it was this that was the goal: a robust public domain, an affordable body of ideas, products, arts and entertainment available to all. The core belief was in the common good, what would benefit everyone. But over time, the influence of the market transformed this principle beyond recognition. Influential thinkers proposed that ideas are a form of property, and this conviction would eventually yield a new term… intellectual property. This was a meme that would multiply wildly, thanks in part to a quirk of human psychology known as Loss Aversion. Simply put, we hate losing what we’ve got. People tend to place a much higher value on losses than on gains. So the gains we get from copying the work of others don’t make a big impression, but when it’s our ideas being copied, we perceive this as a loss and we get territorial. For instance, Disney made extensive use of the public domain. Stories like Snow White, Pinnochio and Alice in Wonderland were all taken from the public domain. But when it came time for the copyright of Disney’s early films to expire, they lobbied to have the term of copyright extended. Artist Shepard Fairey has frequently used existing art in his work. This practice came to head when he was sued by the Associated Press for basing his famous Obama Hope poster on their photo. Nonetheless, when it was his imagery used in a piece by Baxter Orr, Fairey threatened to sue. And lastly, Steve Jobs was sometimes boastful about Apple’s history of copying. We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas. But he harbored deep grudges against those who dared to copy Apple. I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product. I’m willing to go thermonuclear war on this. When we copy we justify it. When others copy we vilify it. Most of us have no problem with copying… as long as we’re the ones doing it. So with a blind eye toward our own mimicry, and propelled by faith in markets and ownership, intellectual property swelled beyond its original scope with broader interpretations of existing laws, new legislation, new realms of coverage and alluring rewards. In 1981 George Harrison lost a 1.5 million dollar case for “subconsciously” copying the doo-wop hit “He’s So Fine” in his ballad “My Sweet Lord.” Prior to this plenty of songs sounded much more like other songs without ending up in court. Ray Charles created the prototype for soul music when he based “I Got a Woman” on the gospel song “It Must be Jesus.” Starting in the late nineties, a series of new copyright laws and regulations began to be introduced… …and many more are in the works. The most ambitious in scope are trade agreements. Because these are treaties, not laws, they can be negotiated in secret, with no public input and no congressional approval. In 2011 ACTA was signed by President Obama, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, currently being written in secret, aims to spread even stronger US-style protections around the world. Of course, when the United States itself was a developing economy, it refused to sign treaties and had no protection for foreign authors. Charles Dickens famously complained about America’s bustling book piracy market, calling it “a horrible thing that scoundrel-booksellers should grow rich.” Patent coverage made the leap from physical inventions to virtual ones, most notably, software. But this is not a natural transition. A patent is a blueprint for how to make an invention. Software patents are more like a loose description of what something would be like if it was actually invented. And software patents are written in the broadest possible language to get the broadest possible protection. The vagueness of these terms sometimes can reach absurd levels. For example, “information manufacturing machine,” which covers anything computer-like, or “material object,” which covers pretty much anything. The fuzziness of software patents’ boundaries has turned the smartphone industry into one giant turf war. 62 percent of all patent lawsuits are now over software. The estimated wealth lost is half a trillion dollars. The expanding reach of intellectual property has introduced more and more possibilities for opportunistic litigation — suing to make a buck. Two new species evolved whose entire business model is lawsuits: sample trolls and patent trolls. These are corporations that don’t actually produce anything. They acquire a library of intellectual property rights, then litigate to earn profits. And because legal defense is hundreds of thousands of dollars in copyright cases and millions in patents, their targets are usually highly motivated to settle out of court. The most famous sample troll is Bridgeport Music, which has filed hundreds of lawsuits. In 2005 they scored an influential court decision over this two-second sample. That’s it. And not only was the sample short, it was virtually unrecognizable. NWA’s “A 100 Miles and Runnin’” This verdict essentially rendered any kind of sampling, no matter how small, infringing. The sample-heavy musical collages of hip-hop’s golden age are now impossibly expensive to create. Now patent trolls are most common back in that troubled realm of software. And perhaps the most inexplicable case is that of Paul Allen. He’s one of the founders of Microsoft, he’s a billionaire, he’s an esteemed philanthropist who’s pledged to give away much of his fortune. And he claims basic web features like related links, alerts and recommendations were invented by his long-defunct company. So the self-proclaimed “idea man” sued pretty much all of Silicon Valley in 2010. And he did this despite no lack of fame or fortune. So to recap, the full picture looks like this. We believe that ideas are property and we’re excessively territorial when we feel that property belongs to us. Our laws then indulge this bias with ever-broadening protections and massive rewards. Meanwhile huge legal fees encourage defendants to pay-up and settle out of court. It’s a discouraging scenario, and it begs the question: what now? The belief in intellectual property has grown so dominant it’s pushed the original intent of copyrights and patents out of the public consciousness. But that original purpose is still right there in plain sight. The copyright act of 1790 is entitled “an Act for the encouragement of learning”. The Patent Act is “to promote the progress of useful Arts.” The exclusive rights these acts introduced were a compromise for a greater purpose. The intent was to better the lives of everyone by incentivizing creativity and producing a rich public domain, a shared pool of knowledge, open to all. But exclusive rights themselves came to be considered the point, so they were strengthened and expanded. And the result hasn’t been more progress or more learning, it’s been more squabbling and more abuse. We live in an age with daunting problems. We need the best ideas possible, we need them now, we need them to spread fast. The common good is a meme that was overwhelmed by intellectual property. It needs to spread again. If the meme prospers, our laws, our norms, our society, they all transform. That’s social evolution and it’s not up to governments or corporations or lawyers… it’s up to us.