Apr 15, 2012

Too Difficult to Copy

In the age of paperless social networking, the value of ideas is taking over the value of tangible goods.  A book is no longer a paper book, it's a file on your Kindle.  An album is no longer a CD, it's an mp3 file.  I like to compare these "idea-products" to wind--they definitely exist, but have no tangible manifestation except in the minds of their creator(s).  And if they do happen to have a tangible manifestation (i.e., a book) it's the idea within the writing that people care about, not the paper and ink. 

In the past, it was easy to seemingly regulate the "ownership" of ideas, because ideas weren't recognized as existing until they were converted from "idea-form" into "tangible-form".  Hence, copy-write laws were born, and they were easy to enforce.  If you're a car company, you can't name your car a Camry.  If your a musician, you can't cover somebody else's song and call it your own.

The fashion industry, however, has always been in a different boat regarding copy write laws.  A precedent was set in the courts long ago that said articles of clothing cannot be copy-written (except for their logos) because articles of clothing are too "utilitarian" to copy-write, meaning that they purely serve a funtion, not an expression of an idea (other than the idea of not being naked all the time).

Of course, we all know this is not true.  Clothing is an expression of one's self.  Nonetheless, the precedent was set and never overturned.

In her TED talk, culture- and media-guru Johanna Blakley argues that the fashion industry's lack of copy-write protection (which you don't necessarilly need to invest the 20 minutes in to get my point), is actually a good thing in terms of creative work:

The point of copy write laws is to protect people from having their ideas stolen, and--here is where copy write laws fail tremendously--to supposedly increase creative processes in the free market by way of "not allowing" people to copy each other.  However, three problem arise:

  • 1.  It doesn't work.  The beauracracy necessary is totally unmanagable.  It is impossible to capture the wind.  Which brings me to...
  • 2.  It's not possible.  The nature of an idea is such that it is impossible to own*, yet parodoxically it is incredibally easy to trace its origin.  To deny the knowledge of an idea's origin is always a lie.  Therefore...
  • 3.  It is simply not necessary to protect ideas.  Ideas protect themselves.  If somebody copies somebody else, everybody knows it.

This is proven in the fashion industry.  Top designers' designs are always being knocked-off (they're actually called knock-offs!), but the catch is that the people who buy the $20 knock-off shoes never would have bought the original $500 shoes in the first place, so nobody is losing anything.

"But what about the designer recieving credit for their designs?" you might ask.  The designer does recieve credit--where it matters.  Among the culture of people who buy the $500 orignals, and the stores that sell them, they definately get credit, not to mention money.  Do they really care if the consumer who bought the knock-offs knows they're buying knock-offs?  No, because they wouldn't have bought the original anyway.  If anything, the existance of the knock-off is good for the designer.

"But don't copy write laws cause designers, artists, etc. to strive to create better, more original ideas?"  No.  When imitation is allowed, as is proven in the fashion industry, it forces you to create something that is, in Blakely's words, "too difficult to copy".  Take TV's The Office for example.  You can walk around all day acting like Micheal Scott, or looking at an imaginary camera every time somebody does something stupid like Jim Halpert, or ironically re-inventing yourself like Ryan Howard... You're not going to be funny.  The brilliance of a show like The Office is that its humor only works in the context of The Office.  It cannot be copied.

The same could be said about music:  I could rip off so-and-so's guitar riff, melody, and drum beat and put it in a song, but everybody is going to know it.  Actually, people do this all the time!  They write dime-a-dozen pop songs and follow the same formula that every song that's ever been loved by non-music-lovers has ever followed--and they might even get airplay on radio, a top-40 hit, etc.  But it won't have lasting success, nor will it have a substantial impact on anybody.  It's just going to come and go.  It's not going to be loved by music lovers--it's just going to be "loved" by people who aren't paying attention to it, and people who can make a profit from it.

Copywrite laws, contrary to popular belief, are a hindrance to creative thinking.  They inhibit trends, and therefore possibilities. All creative processes can benefit from people copying one another.

*Did you know that Subway actually tried to copy-write the word "footlong"?

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