Loosening the Noose on Creativity

Many digital immigrants fear that technology is causing our society to lose its human culture. Before everyone had a personal computer and smartphone people would gather in conversation to debate and discuss the topics of the day, and kids would gather to sing and dance to their favorite songs of the day. Lawrence Lessig describes this culture as a “Read-write” culture, meaning that people participate in the creation and re-creation of their culture. They do not just passively consume other’s creativity, they actively engage material by discussing, analyzing or even reproducing the content in a way that fits their understanding of it. What the digital immigrants fear is that we are becoming, or have already became, a “Read-only” culture. A culture that does not generate any original content other than the select few creators at the top of the creative pyramid. In his TED talk Laws that Choke Creativity, Lessig argues that the Internet and today’s digital technologies have a great potential to revive the read-write culture, but this potential is currently being “choked” by copyright laws.

Lessig builds his argument by giving a few examples of how laws can become outdated and how creative technology can be monopolized. He talks about how property rights used to extend all the way from from the sky above, but once commercial air travel began to grow common sense dictated that the law needed to be altered as every flight would be subject to numerous trespassing suits. He also notes how Broadcasting, before the Internet, presented a new way of spreading content and how what he calls “legal cartels” such as ASCAP controlled the majority rights to broadcast the most popular music. The most important idea behind this story was that when Sydney Kane started Broadcast Music Inc, or BMI, enough broadcasters switched from ASCAP to BMI to break its stranglehold on broadcasting music. Even though BMI’s content was not as popular it was enough competition to achieve balance in the market and created an environment where people could react, compare, contrast, and discuss content from different platforms.

These points are to show that as we continue to develop new technologies, our ideas as to how we use them. Broadcasting did not send us into a pit of read-only culture, we found ways to alter it so that its content was more widely available. Culture adapts and incorporates new media so quickly that we barely have enough time to adapt ourselves. We have all heard the saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. As we grow older it becomes harder to learn and master the new technology that is released every year or even every few months. Because it is challenging for us to learn how to apply new media to our cultural comfort zone, we assume that our children will in turn lose some ability to create and interact. But this is not the case. Today’s children were born into the same environment that we were, just with different technologies. Lessig illustrates this saying “We made mixed tapes; they remix music. We watched TV; they make TV”. Creativity has not been lost, but there are laws in place that prevent us from reaching our full creative potential.

With the advent of YouTube, remix culture has become our literacy. Anyone with access to a computer and even the most basic video or sound editing software is able to sample from already created content and rearrange it to convey a message in a different way. I agree with Lessig when he says that these easily accessible creative tools have become everyday tools of speech as I have even remixed a number of songs a music videos myself. In publishing a video or song that has been remixed, whether to build a following on social media or just for the sake of creating something, many people may say you have pirated or stolen from the original author. In a digital world, copies are inevitable, and so copyright laws can apply to every interaction with technology. Getting explicit permission from the original author is not always easy to do, but I believe that anyone who posts content on a public site is giving permission for that content to be reused, so long as they are accredited to the original work. This is sort of the middle-ground for copyright debate, but as Lessig describes many would like to choose one extreme or the other.

Platforms where content is posted such as YouTube implement technologies that automatically scan for and remove copyrighted content, whether it has been used fairly or not. The other extreme consists of ideas that any creative content posted online can be used and recreated an infinite amount of times. I have actually witnessed YouTube’s auto-takedown first hand. A school project required me to create an interview video in which I had added background music from a popular artist. I uploaded the video to YouTube just before going to bed the night before the video was due. When it was time for my video to be shown in class an error message popped up.

“This video has been removed due to violation of our copyright policy”.

Even though I had listed the song title and artist in the video’s description, the software recognized that the background music was not my original work. I’m sure that if I was able to get in contact with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis they would love that I had used their music in a school project. They would not be offended that I incorporated their music into my project or think that I was attempting to pass off their work as my own.

In order to get back to a read-write culture, we need to be able to access and recreate content. For the content creators at the top of the pyramid, they need to understand this recycling of content is actually contributing to and inspiring creativity in those who may not have the resources or experience to produce an entirely unique work of art. The Internet provides platforms for creative goods to be accessed by anyone with a connection. Just as BMI presented competition to the music sharing industry, public access to content challenges artists to be more creative and encourages amateur artists to develop their own creative style. Children remix music and create their own parody music videos. In doing so they learning how to utilize the digital technology to create their own art, just as we learned to read and write by examining novels and working up a book report on them.