On Creativity

I just recently finished Cory Doctorow’s Pirate Cinema. I picked it up for my 13 year old son for Christmas, but as he still hadn’t read it yet, I decided I would. It was a wonderful read, I highly recommend it to both young and old. I loved it not only because it’s a tale rippingly told, but because it helped me to further clarify some of my own thoughts on culture, ownership and creativity. And while it is guilty (as am I) of maybe overstating some arguments about the prevalence of remix culture, it does so, as do I, because of the inflexible and, frankly, plain incorrect views about the nature of intellectual “property” put forth by industry incumbents that require strenuous resistance and reform.

Anyways, my enjoyment of the book would have gone largely unremarked, but yesterday a tweet from the great folks at Common Craft  brought it back to mind.

Now I understand that the purpose of that 2 minute video is to explain the current status of plagiarism and as such isn’t the place for nuanced discussion about the principles underlying it. And I don’t really want to make this post about the video; it’s fine for what it is. But it did bring to mind the following long passage from the book, which is the kind of conversations I want to expose kids to so that “empowering” them in regards to intellectual property, copyright, ideas of originality, sourcing and citation don’t become equated with “simply accepting and complying with the status quo.” Because that status quo hasn’t always been the case. And while it may be the advent of new technologies that are causing that status quo to be challenged, the actual assumptions about property, originality, individuality, culture and ownership underlying the status quo have ALWAYS been worth questioning.

“All this high and mighty talk about ‘creativity,’ what’s it get you? You’re nicking stuff off other people and calling it your own. I don’t have any problem with that, but at least call it what it is: good, honest thieving.”

Something burst in me. I got to my feet and pointed at him. “Jem, chum, you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, mate. You might know more about jail than I do, but you haven’t a clue when it comes to creativity.” This was something I’d thought about a lot. It was something I cared about. I couldn’t believe that my old pal and mentor didn’t understand it, but I was going to explain it to him, wipe that smirk right off his mug. “Look, let’s think about what creativity is, all right?”

He snorted. “This could take a couple of months.”

“No,” I said. “No, it only takes a long time because there are so many people who would like to come up with a definition of creativity that includes everything they do and nothing anyone else does. But if we’re being honest, it’s easy to define creativity: it’s doing something that isn’t obvious.”

Everyone was looking at me. I stuck my chin out.

“That’s it?” Jem said. “That’s creativity? ‘Doing something that isn’t obvious?’ You’ve had too much coffee, chum. That’s the daftest thing I ever heard.”

I shook my head. “Only because you haven’t thought about it at all. Take the film I just made with Rabid Dog. All that footage of Scot Colford, from dozens of films, and all that footage of monsters, from dozens more. If I handed you any of those films, there’s nothing obvious about them that says, ‘You could combine this in some exact way with all those other films and make a new one.’ That idea came from me. I created it. It wasn’t lying around, waiting to be picked up like a bunch of pebbles on the beach. It was something that didn’t exist until I made it, and probably wouldn’t have existed unless I did. That’s what ‘to create’ means: to make something new.”

Jem opened his mouth, then shut it. He got a thoughtful look. 26 was grinning at me. Cora was looking at me with some of the old big-brother adoration I hadn’t seen for years and years. I felt a hundred feet tall.

At last, Jem nodded. “Okay, fine. But all that means is that there’s lots of different kinds of creativity. Look, I like your film just fine, but you’ve got to admit there’s something different about making a film out of other peoples’ films and getting a camera out and making your own film.”

I could feel my head wanting to shake as soon as Jem started to talk, but I restrained myself and made myself wait for him to finish. “Sure, it’s different — but when you say, ‘making your own film,’ you really mean that the way I make films is less creative, that they’re not my own, right?”

He looked down. “I didn’t say that, but yeah, okay, that’s what I think.”

“I understand,” I said, making myself be calm, even though he was only saying the thing I feared myself. “But look at it this way. Once there weren’t any films, right? Then someone invented the film. He was creative, right? In some way, every film that’s been made since isn’t really creative because the people who made them didn’t invent films at the same time.”

He shook his head. “You’re playing word games. Inventing films isn’t the same as making films.”

“But someone made the first film. And then someone made the first film with two cameras. The first film that was edited. The first film that had sound. The first color film. The first comedy. The first monster film. The first porno film. The first film with a surprise ending. Jem, films are only about a hundred years old. There are people alive today who are older than any of those ideas. It’s not like they’re ancient inventions — they’re not fire or the wheel or anything. They were created by people whose names we know.”

“You don’t know their names,” Jem said, grinning. I could tell I was getting through to him.

Cora laughed like a drain. “Trent doesn’t know anything unless he can google it. But I do. The novel was invented by Cervantes five hundred years ago: Don Quixote. And the detective story was invented in 1844 by Poe: The Purloined Letter. A fella named Hugo Gernsback came up with science fiction, except he called it scientifiction.”

I nodded at her, said, “Thanks –”

But she cut me off. “There’s only one problem, Trent: The novel was also invented by Murasaki Shikibu, half-way around the world, hundreds of years earlier. Mary Shelley wrote science fiction long before Hugo Gernsback: Frankenstein was written in 1817. And so on. The film camera had about five different inventors, all working on their own. The problem with your theory is that these creators are creating something that comes out of their heads and doesn’t exist anywhere else, but again and again, all through history, lots of things are invented by lots of people, over and over again. It’s more like there are ideas out there in the universe, waiting for us to discover them, and if one person doesn’t manage to make an idea popular, someone else will. So when you say that if you don’t create something, no one will, well, you’re probably not right.”

“Wait, what? That’s rubbish. When I make a film, it comes out of my imagination. No one else is going to think up the same stuff as me.”

“Now you sound like me,” Jem said, and rubbed his hands together.

Cora patted my hand. “It’s okay, it’s just like you said. Everyone wants a definition of creativity that makes what they do into something special and what everyone else does into nothing special. But the fact is, we’re all creative. We come up with weird and interesting ideas all the time. The biggest difference between ‘creators’ isn’t their imagination — it’s how hard they work. Ideas are easy. Doing stuff is hard. There’s probably a million geezers out there who love Scot Colford films, but none of them can be arsed to make something fantastic out of them, the way you do. The fact is, creativity is cheap, hard work is hard, and everyone wants to think his ideas are precious unique snowflakes, but ideas are like assholes, we’ve all got ‘em.”

– Cory Doctor, Pirate Cinema, pages 206-209, Tor Teen Books October 2012 edition

3 thoughts on “On Creativity

  1. Catherine Novak

    Nice quote! I read Little Brother by Cory Doctorow under similar circumstances – I’d actually bought it for my son, Daniel, who was fired up about SOPA/PIPA, and read it myself. He’s thought provoking.

    Film is like music, literature, poetry and any number of other “arts”. Where is the line between influence and piracy? Why is recombining different and “less than” other forms of creation? Who makes up the rules? Why can’t “piracy” that remixes, adds and redistributes also be an homage to a creator that we admire?

    These are, indeed, conversations we should be having in the schools, studios and creative places of the world…

    1. sleslie Post author

      Remind me, hold old is Gabe? I seem to think he’s 11? The one small caution I’d raise is that the book is definitely “Young Adult” as in “probably at least 14+” Personally I loved its depictions of the parties and other shenanigans the characters get up too, but I can see them being troubling to parents of younger kids. So just FYI; I think reading this _with_ a younger kid could spur on all sorts of constructive conversations, and it’s not like most kids aren’t typically exposed to all this and more through other media channels.

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