Thicke, Gaye, Apple, Darwin… I Don’t Think Many People Understand How Creativity Actually Works

copy After the Robin Thicke and Marvin Gaye court case was settled this week it reminded me of something which has niggled away at me since my days as a design engineer, and that is that I don’t think the general public seem to really understand how innovation and creativity actually work.

Thicke and Pharrell lost the case, effectively having to cough up half the profits generated by their adorable rape song, for the crime of ripping off Marvin Gaye. It didn’t directly copy, apparently, but it had ‘the same feel’, and that was enough for them to be adjudged as having exploited Gaye’s creativity unfairly. And as I understand it Pharrell and Thicke were the ones who pre-emptively sued the Gaye family too, so it’s hard to have a shred of sympathy for them, but the verdict still doesn’t sit well with me.

Put as simply and briefly as possible, innovation is copying. The two are pretty much the same thing.

Not only are copying and innovation the same thing, but they are a crucial part of what makes humans humans. The ability to imitate the success of others and to pass that on to other people is the foundation of our entire culture and every advance in technology or knowledge in our history. The tiny incremental changes some people make in passing things on are ‘innovation’, and they are important, but inseparable from the importance of copying and imitation.

In fact, the definition of innovation used, until very recently, to be more along the lines of ‘making a small change to an existing idea’, instead of now, where it seems to be almost synonymous with invention.

I remember this very clearly from my product design career. In the field of technological innovation the myth of The Lone Inventor has a powerful hold, and I think the same myth distorts people’s understanding of the arts too. There was also this weird inability to see past the almost entirely fictitious Eureka Moment, generally achieved by a solitary person whilst in the bath thinking of something totally different, where they would solve the whole problem in a moment of clarity and change the world forever.

That image is total and utter bollocks. It’s like we’ve all collectively forgotten the cliché about genius being 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Sometimes clichés exist for a reason.

You look at the greatest creative minds of our time, like Charles Darwin or Mozart. Even Mozart borrowed (or indeed just plain stole) elements of melody for The Magic Flute and presumably all sorts of other stuff, and the discovery of evolution with natural selection was made so inevitable by the progress of global scientific thought which preceded it that it was actually discovered by at least two people at the same time. Probably more, if we’re being honest.

The Lone Inventor pretty much doesn’t exist. The Eureka Moment pretty much doesn’t exist. All of human creativity, innovation and progress is overwhelmingly down to people copying from one another, making tiny changes, and those changes which are most beneficial surviving to be copied by the next bunch of copiers. Had Mozart never existed we would still have had incredible symphonies. Had Einstein never existed we would still have discovered relativity – it’s the very banality of the creative process which makes it so robust. A log becomes a wheel, which becomes a wheelbarrow, becomes a cart, becomes a carriage, becomes a car, becomes a flying Delorean.

“Although the impact of creative ideas and products can sometimes be profound, the mechanisms through which an innovation comes about can be very ordinary.” – Robert Weisberg, a psychologist at Temple University in Philadelphia. The quote is taken from this really interesting essay on the nature of creativity.

The technology industry is totally obsessed with capturing patents, to the extent that they celebrate and reward the patenting of pretty much anything no matter how pointless or whether or not it results in a useful device or product, to the extent that they will trumpet the number of patents they hold above any mention of actually creating something useful.

In fact, far from signifying any kind of creativity, patents are generally just used as a commercial tool to hobble the competition and as such are basically there to hinder creativity and progress rather than encourage it. And to make matters worse, patents are frequently awarded for things which are complete and utter bollocks. Things which are way too obvious, way too broad or vague, or are just plain common sense or common knowledge are awarded patents all the time.

It was a fucking minefield, honestly, and when I think about the amount of time I have personally wasted trying to think of needlessly circuitous ways to circumvent stupid patents, or just to be absolutely certain that something was miles away from a particular patent, well beyond the realms of common sense, out of fear of lawsuits, it makes me want to smash my head against my desk. It was anti-innovation, and the creative industries are in danger of being sucked into this particular quicksand too, if we aren’t careful.

Art is based upon imitation. Pretty much everyone learns by imitating their heroes, and if they don’t directly learn that way then they’ll get round to it at some point. We have established forms of poetry to which people choose to conform, Western music uses all the same basic building blocks, and some of our most respected artistic output and beloved cultural achievements are in the sphere of folk culture, which is pretty much defined by liberal copying, plus mistakes and fucking about. That’s what makes it good, what makes it fun, and that is where its richness comes from.

Some of our most respected musicians’ creative contributions were pretty minimal, if you look at it. Billie Holiday is a legend, but all she did was take the voice she was born with, hone it, and use it incredibly well singing other people’s songs again and again – existing material. And she is revered. And I can’t think of anyone who would argue with her right to be so.

John Louis from Debt Records and Louis Barabbas and the Bedlam Six has written a really nice post about how impossible it is to disentangle your influences from what you yourself create, as well as the near-impossibility of creating anything genuinely new within the relatively narrow confines of Western pop music, which is incredibly rigidly defined in scope and structure.

We’ve been here before of course, with the hand-wringing over mash-ups and samples, and there is a very real problem behind the idea of unfettered freedom of copying, imitating and repurposing. If some unknown musician writes a great riff or a great chorus which a commercial juggernaut like, say, Beyoncé or Chris Martin happens to hear in a pub and they then steal that riff, they could make millions off it without ever having to acknowledge the contribution of the person they are nicking it from.

You could argue, and I think it’s a dodgy argument but not entirely without merit, that if that unknown artist can ride the coat-tails of the success of the people nicking their riff or their melody then they might be adequately recompensed by an entirely free market – after all, without the marketing machine and resources of the Coldploncé machine that riff itself didn’t have nearly as much commercial value anyway. I appreciate that argument, but I don’t buy it entirely.

But we have to remember that protection is supposed to encourage creativity and innovation to flourish. And if it is to do this we need to understand how this stuff works. We need to copy and we need to imitate, not because sometimes it’s okay or sometimes it’s unavoidable, but because it is at the absolute core of the concept of creativity. Copying and sharing are the mechanisms by which innovation works, and participation is the engine which drives them.

We may well need legal protection for original thought in order to keep people participating, in order to keep the engine of creativity running, but if we try to do it by destroying the mechanisms which that engine is powering then our efforts will be entirely self-defeating.

I dread to think of musicians deliberately hobbling their own work out of fear it might sound a bit too much like this, that or the other and that they might therefore get sued. And then getting sued anyway because someone they’d never heard of wrote something similar back in 1964, died ten years ago, and now Universal own the rights. It works like that in technology development and it is a complete waste of time, energy, resources and ideas. And we all know who would dominate in that kind of landscape, don’t we: the fucks with the meanest lawyers and the deepest pockets.

If we don’t step back from this completely misguided fairytale of artists creating entirely original work in a complete fucking vacuum then we run the very real risk of severely paralysing the creative process across our entire musical culture.

Still, it was nice to see that smug prick Robin Thicke finally getting telt, wasn’t it.

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