That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. – Thomas Jefferson
It was allegedly King Solomon who declared “there is nothing new under the sun!” Now a recent strain of thought seeks to recast King Solomon’s casual observation in order to challenge the basis of U.S. copyright laws, i.e., original ideas. This line of reasoning is perhaps best exemplified in the popular cult film by Brett Gaylor entitled RIP, A Remix Manfesto, inspired by his need to defend the work of his favorite mash up artist, Girltalk. Gaylor makes no bones about his attack on ideas, explaining to his audience near the beginning of the film that this is “a film about the war of ideas, where the Internet is the battleground.” So be it. Let’s debate the film’s primary cornerstone, the first and foundational clause of the Remix Manifesto, which is that “Culture always borrows from the past.” Is that true?
To be fair to Gaylor, let me initially point out that the entire ReMix Manifesto, and certainly the ideology that undergirds it, is actually borrowed from Dr. Lawrence Lessig, who is a professor at Stanford Law School. Lessig develops the thesis in his book, Remix: Making Art & Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. Lessig is prominently featured in the film and Gaylor does not shy away from his support of Lessig’s thesis.
Now back to the premise that “culture always borrows from the past.” Without getting too far down the path of logical fallacy of drawing a universal conclusion from purely inductive reasoning (as Gaylor does in the film), such a conclusion is, at best, probable, and not definitive. Further, it is only probable if one can assume the truth of the premises used to support the conclusion, for the instant a person can find but one example of an contradicting premise – i.e., in this case an example of something that does not borrow from the past – then the conclusion must be flawed.
Can we find such an example, or are King Solomon and Dr. Lessig correct? Is there no original thought? I personally have a hard time accepting this premise. Spawning original ideas or creating an original thought is, in my humble opinion, what separates us and truly defines us as a species. Sure, the human species uses words, notes, colors, shapes, etc. as the building blocks of its ideas. In that sense, yes, we are using “the past” to create in some fundamental sense. But if you think about it, you’ve heard the old postulation that if you put 50 monkeys in a room filled with typewriters they are statistically incapable of creating a work of Shakespeare simply by striking out random characters on the page and even, perhaps, hitting upon a string of a few words every so often! This illustrates the proposition that the mere existence of the building blocks does not negate original nor creative thought.
Every now and again, albeit perhaps rare, a human being has a spark of an idea: something is invented or created – something original and unique – that changes, even if only in a small senses, the very nature of life for all humans that follow. It is these original thoughts that propel us forward toward the destiny that is mankind’s, affected forever by the new idea. What it must have been like to be around in the days when the first human species began to formulate language. Creating symbols, be it words or drawings, that communicated their thoughts to another human being. To have been present when the first rudimentary tools were developed to perform the tasks necessary to sustain one’s life in a hostile environment. In the film, Gaylor makes the point that Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press occurred during a time when the “public domain” flourished. His use of this example is, in this case, ironic, since the printing press can truly be defined as one of those creative bursts of unique ideas that only come along one is a few millennia. Since that invention, perhaps only the creation of the Internet has affected the world as much as Gutenberg’s original thought.
So, with these examples, I ask what part of the past did they build on? One might argue that language “borrowed” from the idea of communicating through gestures. Another will say that Gutenberg incorporated language and writing and therefore borrowed from the past. But only in the most general of senses can one seriously maintain that these remarkably useful and unique ideas sustain the principle that “culture always borrows from the past.” I maintain that these are examples of those brilliant moments in human history when someone has that flash of an original idea – whether inspired by God, by his or her muse, by hallucinogenic means, or by heartburn – and creates something that is uniquely and totally new, something that does not, in any substantive sense, borrow from the past. In that moment, we witness the origins of an idea. Perhaps more importantly, when that original idea is expressed in a tangible format, we see the origins of a copyright in the U.S., a copyright that is protectable as a limited monopoly for the life of the author plus seventy years.
In that last conclusion lies the crux of the problem. Lessig and Gaylor make their proposition in the context of trying to solve a perceived problem with current copyright laws: because the length of protection has been extended, there are fewer works going into to public domain and therefore fewer ideas from which to borrow. As a result, “artists” like Girltalk who use pre-existing copyright sound recordings to “mash” together and “create” new songs have fewer popular songs to work with.
In Remix, Lessig says that this results in the criminalization of copying ideas and that, therefore, we should deregulate amateur creativity and decriminalize file sharing. In his words, “chill the ‘control freaks.’” This is where Lessig jumps in to save the day with his “creative commons” license, which uses existing copyright concepts to allow an author to “issue” a license allowing anyone to freely use his or her work, with the only requirement being that of attribution. Ironically enough, Lessig has copyrighted his own books and has, to date at least, not issued a creative commons license for Remix! Now who’s the control freak?
In regard to this issue of works no longer falling into the public domain, while it may be true that extending the period of protection has the effect of slowing down the process, the fact is that our forefathers, primarily Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Charles Pinckney, clearly anticipated and struggled with the concept that “ideas should spread freely” – as Jefferson says in the quote above – but nonetheless built appropriate safeguards into the copyright provision of the Constitution (Article I, Section 8, Clause 8), providing that Congress may protect the works of “authors and inventors” for “a limited time.” While one can argue, perhaps, that the period of a “limited time” has been grossly exaggerated, one cannot argue that the public domain concept has been abolished.
Frankly, as I see it, giving up on the concept of original thought is not the foundation upon which we as a society should build a debate against the current construct. We should cling to that concept, for it is in that moment – that origin of an original idea – that persons can distinguish themselves from the past, not borrow from it. It is at that moment that our culture is propelled into the future. It is at that moment, I believe, that we are truly alive.