Plumbing for the Next Creative Act

Yesterday I wrote about an interview Corey Doctorow gave to the Bizarre Assemblage in which he talks about how wrong-headed enforcement of copyright law interferes with creative progress. He talks about copying as the source of learning, refinement and, ultimately, improvement. Doctorow speaks on this theme a lot.

I have been carrying around this quote from that article all day: “[I]f we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that everything we do is creative and everything we do becomes plumbing for the next creative act.”

This is a lovely, direct way to say a very powerful thing. Humans are creative. We create things. Being creative is what makes us unique. Current copyright law focuses very much on the need to protect fixed expressions from theft. That is not a bad impulse. People who create things deserve credit for those things. People who make a living creating things deserve fair compensation for creating those things. No argument there. The problem arrives in the overreach. We have fetishized the end product so much that we have missed the point of what we are actually doing when we create something.

The artistic products we value — the books, movies, paintings, poems, stories, pictures, drawings, performances, music — have value because they transfer ideas. New artistic works don’t spring up from nowhere. They come from previous works. They take ideas and comment on them, enlarge them, refocus them, refute them. Artistic products tell us about ourselves and tell the people who come after us about ourselves as well.

I am very, very interested in the idea that art is really just a conversation. That the point of any creative work is simply to give someone else an idea so that they can do a creative work that will give someone else an idea so that they can do a creative work and so on.

When we think of ourselves this way, the work we do, all the work we do, becomes an inspiration factory. We are always building the plumbing for the next creative act. The goal is not really to write a book or make a movie or paint a picture or write a program. The goal is to propagate our best ideas, to move the species forward by mixing thoughts and ideas in a mad foam where the best ideas can combine, survive, mutate and grow.

Biology gives the example. This isn’t a one to one transfer where you give me an idea then I give the next guy an idea. This is pollination. A mad spray of ideas, inspiration and perception which mixes together in weird, unexpected, powerful ways.

We cannot control the outcomes of our creative output. Maybe we can’t even really understand it. That’s why the impulse to control and limit creative copying is a bad thing. We are limiting ourselves before we have even had a chance to see what we are capable of doing.

Cory Doctorow: Copying is the source of creativity

Cory Doctorow is a great writer with a fascinating mind. He writes around the edges of the science fiction genre about themes like intellectual property,  information economies, informatics, censorship, and internet connectivity. If you think he sounds like a nerd, you’d be right. He’s a nerd’s nerd. I say that with great admiration.

Doctorow spent several years at the Electronic Frontier Foundation working on information policy issues related to copyright and intellectual property. Doctorow has become a powerful voice in the movement against Digital Rights Management software. DRM is the stuff that makes eBooks impossible to share or use the way you use paper-based books. DRM is the stuff that makes “owning” eBooks a fundamentally different experience than owning a paper-based book. He writes a lot about the concept of ownership and how we try to manage ideas as property.

You should read his books and essays to learn more about that.

Doctorow generally opposes the idea that piracy is an author’s worst enemy. In fact, Doctorow gives electronic copies of his books away for free in the belief that free copies increases his reading audience which, in turn, drives more sales. It seems to be working for him.

I admire Doctorow for his ability to reduce complex, abstract ideas to their essential core. He makes big ideas small enough for me to carry around with me and share with other people.

This recent interview in the Bizarre Assemblage is a great example. This is how he describes the role of copying in creative works:

 I knew even before I went to work for EFF that there really wasn’t any way that you could prevent people from copying things that they wanted to copy. And I also understood that copying was not in and of itself evil. In fact, copying is kind of the basis of humanity. You know, four billion years ago some molecules used some process that we don’t understand to figure out how to copy themselves and we are their descendants  We have a name for things that don’t copy themselves: we call them dead. So it’s pretty hard to condemn copying as wrong when everybody biologically copies all the time. And I felt like, as an artist, there was something profoundly intellectually dishonest in proclaiming what I did to be original. Obviously I do a lot of verbatim copying as an artist and my life is filled with mixed tapes and with things that I copied as part of my journey, as it were, to becoming the person I am today. But also every time I write a novel, I copy Cervantes who invented the Western novel. And every time anyone writes a detective novel, you copy Edgar Allen Poe who invented the detective novel. And it’s very tempting to say well, what I’m doing is a creative input of what those people did. But I think that’s intellectually dishonest. And I think that if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that everything we do is creative and everything we do becomes plumbing for the next creative act.

He goes on to offer great advice to young writers: Write a lot. Write everyday. Great advice from a writer who has made a creative career that matters. Read his stuff. Study it. Copy it and make it your own. By making it your own, I mean add value. If you can add value to someone else’s ideas, you are making the world better for all of us. You are making “plumbing for the next creative act”.

SOPA author attribution error: the kind of funny that makes you want to weep

Turns out SOPA author Senator Lamar Smith violated the terms of his own bad legislation. His reelection campaign website ( recently featured a background image illegally “pirated” from photographer DJ Schulte. Schulte posted the original image under a Creative Commons license requiring non-commercial users to attribute the image source when reposting. That didn’t happen. Don’t bother checking Smith’s site. The image has been removed.

There are lots of great articles about this. It seems that this article at started it all. Nice work!

I will support reasoned efforts to curtail blatant piracy and will line up behind attempts to help artists preserve the integrity of their own intellectual efforts. I can’t support SOPA. SOPA is written so broad it will further confuse people about what can and can’t be posted or published online. Our culture works through remix. We are constantly mixing ideas, writings and creative expressions into our own work to make something new. That’s called art. The web is really great for that. The so-called Stop Online Piracy Act is not about protecting copyright. It is about preserving corporate control over our own culture so that companies like Disney and Viacom can endlessly repackage and resell our own culture back to us over and over again.

Do not support this legislation. It is bad for artists. It is bad for Web users. It is bad for American culture. Find out more. Do something.