This post came about for a few reasons.

Firstly, I recently interviewed Creative Commons Swiss representative Philippe Perreaux (who also happens to be a lawyer, entrepreneur, helicopter pilot kind of guy), and we discussed the Public Domain. Secondly, I’m creative director and co-editor of The Woolf Quarterly and, through that, I come into contact with many people who are doing creative, content-related things in the cultural landscape. Thirdly, I am a novelist and writer of various ‘contents’ and ideas: copyright and intellectual property is a hot topic in just about every area of my work.

Therefore, I wanted to share my view that copyright is a really interesting nexus and a symptom of many aspects of humanity and the frameworks we like to put around fear and creativity. (Yes, casting the net wide here …)

Okay. Copyright helmet ON …

How do we look at Copyright?

First of all, there’s the in-real-life (IRL) organisational (at the country and local level) infrastructures and existing frameworks (the law), which are built on a pre-digital ways of thinking and operating. Pre-digital in this case means an industrialist context: artist creates work, work transforms into product, artist ideally sells product in monetary exchange.

And then there’s the value spectrum, which is a grey area best described with a question: “What’s a work worth to you?” In this scenario, artist creates work, the work is the work (an extension of the artist), someone might show appreciation with money, or with favours, or with sharing their networks and contacts with that artist.

In scenario one (which happens to be the western world’s status quo), Said Artist focuses on monetary exchange for their work-as-product. Artist becomes paranoid, because the lingua franca is money; our systems and frameworks for survival require it. Artist must seek therefore to protect work-as-product and ideas. Not only is the fear around this terrible for creative juices (see the transcript of Iggy Pop’s John Peel speech to the BBC on music and capitalism) but being forced to carve out an identity as separate from any other artist or person – the pursuit of uniqueness and the solitary genius mentality – is unhealthy.

“Don’t steal my ideas! I should be paid for this. I am unique!”

In scenario two, Said Artist and their work are mutually appreciated, the artist ideally holds a place in ‘society’ in which others naturally watch out for them, feed them, value them as a creator, rather than a machine that pumps out products.

What if Said Artist produces one work of art (or perhaps one tweet, or even just packs one bag of shopping at the supermarket), and becomes an overnight sensation? Good for them. But, as Creative Commons advocate and activist Cory Doctorow has said, ‘You can’t eat fame.’ And therein lies the rub.

Yet, in this scenario,

Remix and building on others’ work is as old as the taste of cold water. Austin Kleon even wrote a book entitled Steal Like An Artist.


Yes, that’s right: stealing is a matter of perspective.

At the moment, copyright can be whatever we want it to be. Creative Commons and Copyleft separate these various forces from each other by not only offering a visual icon or symbol that functions like an infographic (that you can attach to your work) – icons that represent the flow of money, remix and ownership, and distribution – but these organisations also work towards building a public domain, the gist of which is giving the world a library of ideas that may be freely exchanged and modified in a context that fosters the abolition of fear.

And when I say fear, I mean fear. Fear of stepping on others’ toes. Fear of being sued. Fear of losing our home and our dignity. Fear of isolation. And all because the lines aren’t clear. And they never can be. That’s what modernism has taught us. The faster we run and the harder we work to get our ducks in a row, the more problems we encounter along the way.

Who owns what? is not a useful question. It’s always a matter of degrees … and furthermore, the ‘what’ always changes.

Another function of organizations like Creative Commons is that they – by their nature and existence – show that we are no longer living in the ‘industrialist’ world, and this is a way we can move forwards that benefits everyone. Not just those ‘fortunate’ enough to have made their mark in existing hierarchies or clubs or institutions. Not just those rewarded by gate-keepers or agents or bosses.

This is a networked approach and it’s very hard to grasp. I mean, REALLY grasp. We know the theory. We know the idea of the social network and key influencers and so forth. We ‘use’ our networks to communicate every day. But to really grasp the power of the network, we need to let go of the idea that what we’re offering is un-scale-ably special and we should be compensated for our toil. We *should* be paid money, of course we should. Money is in and of itself neither good nor bad. But what everyone is offering is equal. It’s just what it’s worth to you that matters.

Beauty is beauty, of course. And we should pursue it if it makes the world a more peaceful place. But we should also know that beauty is subjective. If you create a work of beauty, you can be pleased about that. But someone helped you get that book written. Someone minded your kid. Someone taught you how to format, or how to think about managing time.

Not only that, but someone wrote some code that makes the search engine work. Sure, they got paid for it, but if you look at it purely through your own financial lens, you pay NOTHING to the company directly for using their mail client to send out your press release about your new book, or for (ahem) designing your microstories with their platform.

Someone wrote that code. Someone thought it’d be cool to create Twitter. Someone designed that keyboard you’re typing on. Someone invented that font.

Why don’t they send in the lawyers?

So I’m not likely to be convinced that one person’s work is any more epic or important than anyone else’s. And I’m not likely to be convinced that I shouldn’t remix or collaborate or take loads of money … or give it for free.

Ask first. Acknowledge. Thank. And give.

It’s about respect. And it’s about being part of the human race.

In finding solutions to the chaos … The more other factors are left out of account in the process, the shorter, cheaper and thus more rational will be the recommendations provided by the team given the task of ‘solving’ …

The struggle is bound to remain inconclusive because the struggle itself is the most important obstacle to its success.

—Zygmunt Bauman, on modernism, in Thinking Sociologically