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Lessig VS Levi-Strauss: How The Creative Commons Might Even Kill Creativity

2005/08/09
Hiroo Yamagata (http://cruel.org/)


More than twenty years ago or so, an angst-filled high-school kid (myself) was listening to his favorite weekly radio program that specialized in progressive and new wave rock. Oh, those were the post-punk days, with Aztec Camera, Echo and the Bunnymen and Public Image Limited were THE thing, some more "pointy" kids were into Einstürzende Neubauten while all maintained their respect toward Led Zeppelin and King Crimson (whose new album at the time, Discipline, was causing quite a confusion among the followers in Japan, not the least because of the horrible song "Matte-Kudasai"). We weren't quite sure what to do with the Police, U2 was openly looked down as copycat of Echo and the Bunnymen, blah blah blah, I could go on all day.

This was the pre-Internet days (pre-CD days, to be precise), so radio was THE main source of music for us poor kids. So, I was expecting to get my weekly dose of that stuff.

But on that day, the DJ said that he had something interesting. It was God save the Queen, performed by the Dragons from Yunnan province in China. The Dragons? Never heard of them, but I listened on.

It was hilariously horrible. The guys were simply yelling "WAAAAAAAAA, ARRRRRRRR, nGaaaaaa" all through the music that remotely resembled the Sex Pistols' version, everything on low quality cassette. I was ROFLing so hard that I forgot to press the record button (which I regret to this day).

The DJ explained that the tape just happened to come around. According to him, these guys heard the Sex Pistols on their short wave radio, with all of its noise, phasing and of course, jamming*1 from the Chinese government. They sounded like bunch of guys just yelling nothing along with the music (which some might say is quite an accurate understanding of the band, even taking into account that they didn't understand much English), so though "Hey, we could do that!" and went on to actually replicate what they thought was God save the Queen.

Chinese dragon I don't know what became of them*2. But according to the story told a hundred times by Lawrence Lessig, this is a wonderful example of the creativity process at work. They took the creation of the predecessors, and built on it. Had there been the evil controls of the copyright code (in its both flavors) at work, they wouldn't have been able to do it, and the World would have had one less hilarity at its disposal. In order to increase the amount of stuff created, we need to create an environment that allows everyone to tap into the vast creative commons in their pure form, so that anyone can build on anything!

Sounds reasonable enough. But... what if they had such stuff? What if the kids in Yunnan province had such access? What if they could listen to LP vinyl quality Sex Pistols all they want?

It is quite likely that they would never bothered to form The Dragons. And even if they did, the people around them would have had no use for a second rate copy. They would have listened to the actual Sex Pistols. The market for the Dragons would have been non-existent. They would have had no incentive to create, and there would have been no market for them.

In other words: if there was a global commons that allowed anybody to tap into the cultural fruit of others in their pure form, their creativity would never have been unleashed onto this unsuspecting world.

At this point, you should see where I'm headed. Why am I telling this story? Well, because being the devil's advocate that I am, I'm having second thoughts about the whole idea of creative commons. It's not a very big second thought, and the whole thing merely amounts to some minor dick pulling. But I feel that there's something here that merits SOME attention.

I've been reading a lot of Claude Levi-Strauss these days for reasons that don't concern you. But this French anthropologist also has things to say about creativity. He claims that the whole idea of a completely unique creativity that creates stuff out of thin air is a nonsense. All creativity is based on the creation of the predecessors. The creativity is in how you take them and mold it, or modify it. I quoted a passage from his The Way of the Masks in my translator's note to Free Culture, because his argument is exactly the same as Larry Lessig's argument. In my experience, when your completely different interests converge unexpectedly, there's always something there.

However, as I read on, I noticed that he makes another argument concerning creativity. He argues that creativity works best under a very imperfect and ineffective communication environment where only vague generic idea about things are conveyed. Creativity will be destroyed when everyone can have clear access to everything. In "Race and Culture," Chapter 1 of The View from Afar, he firmly asserts that creativity derives from discrimination, inequity and rejectionism. "Perfect communication with others will sooner or later kill the uniqueness of the creativity in others and in oneself." (I read it in a Japanese translation, possibly the English translation would be a bit different.) The only reason that the masks and totem poles in North/meso America and myths in the Amazon (the non-virtual one) jungles are wonderfully creative and boasts amazing varieties is because you couldn't have an exact copy.

This is convincing. Suppose I saw a great movie (say, Kungfu Hustle). I would want to tell everybody about it. "Well, what was it like?" my friends will ask. Now, if I can get a perfect copy from Blockbusters or Amazon or P2P service, I'd say "Oh, just go and watch it. It's hilarious and everything, triple your money back if you don't enjoy." At the most, I might write a longish review for Amazon.com. But if there's no way for my friends to see the real thing, and if I really wanted to get them to see my point, I might try to act it out, make drawings, do a video... The level of creativity that would be excercised would be incomparably higher. And there would be some distortions, some blurry details that I simply improvised, that would make the re-enactment etc. different from the original. THAT is the source of creativity. The fact that you COULDN'T access the original leads to creativity.

North American mask by the Museum of Natural History, NY Same with the North American tribes or Jungle tribes of the Amazon. The same with the Dragons. Tribe A has a nice mask, and some one from the far away tribe B saw it, and wanted something similar for their upcoming ritual. If the guy could go to the corner convenience store to get the latest mask from Paul Smith, he wouldn't have bothered to create one himself, there would have been no variance, and hence, no creativity. If the tribe B guy could download the tribe A myth (with a CC share alike license), or if he had a tape recorder for that matter, he wouldn't have bothered to tell the myth from the top of his head. He would have relied on the precise recording or the download. Hence, no creativity. The only reason that creativity flourished was that he couldn't do these things. He had to rely on his incomplete memory, or some anecdotes from other tribesmen ("you know, the thing was really scary, with this big feathers on top and ...how big? Oh I don't know, almost as high as that branch, maybe.")

Since I am half economist, I can re-phrase his opinion here. Levi-Strauss is basically saying that people create only when the cost of creation is lower than the cost of copying. Some argue that people have this uncontrollable urge to create that transcends all cost/benefit calculation. However, maybe not. Except in some very limited case in some weird civilization (like ours), people don't create just for the sake of creation itself. Usually the act of creation has a purpose. People create music to entertain people, attract potential mates, or to please the gods and spirits. If you can do that cost-effectively by copying other people's creations, then there's no real need to create, so they won't.

This argument, of course, presupposes that people will have similar outputs anyway, and that it is merely a choice between either creating yourself, or looking for pre-made stuff. It neglects the case where one chooses not to produce anything. Also, there might be cases where the tribe B guy and C guys were too lazy to make the whole mask, but were willing to add some minor and unique modifications if they can get their hands on a ready-made mask. They would buy the basic mask at the Amazon convenience store up stream, and add a bit of modification in their wonderful display of creativity. If this were possible, more people might be inclined to make masks, which means more creativity. I guess you can't make decisive comments as to which case brings about more creativity just by theorizing.

However, I feel that there is significant substance in this argument. And if this is right...then a creative commons that everyone can use freely may not lead to increased creativity as planned. It may even lead to decreased creativity. Creativity may be enhanced if we could make things harder to get! Which translates into the idea that you should actually strengthen the controls on various creations, make them harder to use, copy, access. Which seems to suggest that... the increased hurdles on the use of IP may actually be better for creativity??!!

Someone caught with IP infringement Yeah yeah, I know, there are several leaps in the logic here. It doesn't mean right away that you should increase controls like they are doing today. If the lawyers today existed in the Amazon jungle, they would have come to tribe B and demanded their heads (literally; these guys are Jivaros, REAL headhunters) for making derivative works of tribe A's intellectual property. The Dragons would have suffered a similar fate, working in the gulag of Chinghai by now. That is definitely not good. But, I guess in order to really enhance creativity, maybe it is useful to limit access to the actual thing. What counts may be only the freedom on the derivative side. Because following this logic, the ideal setting for a thriving creativity should have the following qualities;

  1. You can experience the original work.
  2. You can NOT take/use the original work in its exact form.
  3. Making derivatives (or, filling the gap between the original and the copy) is widely permitted.

Creative commons fails on point 2. The current regime fails on point 3. But they may be on par, or possibly not much different. But just imagine that Creative Commons got so successful, with huge number of works, and a really good search engine somewhere. I don't think people would create much. Almost anything that fills any need would be out there. Why should anyone create at all? Poeple are lazy, and most are extremely reluctant to reinvent the wheel. Many people, including especially myself, have the experience of writing a paragraph or so, or creating a spreadsheet one third of the way. After a while, you come back and want to continue working on that file, but you can't remember where you saved it. What do you do? Even when you know that it is faster and better to re-do the whole thing from scratch, many people spend a disproportionately large time looking for that lost file. This shows that in many case, people would rather not create, even when the cost of creating is obviously far lower than the search/use cost for pre-existing stuff. Creative commons clearly lowers the search/use cost of existing material. So, does creative commons really enhance creativity? I'm not quite sure anymore. Yeah, right now, it probably would, because the commons are getting depleted, and restrictions on derivatives are becoming absurd. But then, wouldn't it be better if we could make a creative commons license that REALLY enhances creativity under this theory? The one that fulfills the three points listed above?

nv Now, there's no creative commons license to do this at the moment. This would be an... Derive-alike (but no verbatim use) license? Sounds REALLY weird, but maybe you need something like this (Click here to see the actual license.) The problem is, of course, you can't really imagine people using this license ... or can you? Also, maybe Creative Commons license shouldn't allow MP3 files with bit rates that are higher than 15 kbps, or make the sound quality equivalent to short wave broadcasts, put in some system feature to drop bits and bytes from its archives? I'm not sure how to put this idea to real use, and anyway, I'm talking about a hopefully small possibility*3.

Levi-Strauss, however, seems to be much more convinced about the significance of this idea. We shoudln't have seamless communication, we shouldn't have perfect access. We should re-install the imperfections and the inconveniences, "if the human beings does not wish to become barren consumers of the values created in the past, or does not wish to simply dwell in the sub-standard creations and unsophisticated inventions." If you think about it, what he is suggesting is really scary. You may not think he is serious. But he is. He is generally a humorless guy. Also, the piece originally appeared as a proceedings for a UNESCO conference, where communication among cultures are considered to be unquestionably good. He felt strong enough about this to go completely against the organizers (Levi-Strauss reports that they were really shocked). And while I titled this article Lessig VS Levi-Strauss, I have a feeling that they are not actually conflicting. This need for imperfection, seems to resonate with Lessig's arguments in CODE (which I still think is his best). I'm a bit scared. I like the idea of creative commons, and that is why this essay itself uses the CC license. But I'm afraid there's a bit more to the CC argument than is usually said (although not much, I hope.)

Notes:

1. I realized that many people have no idea what jamming is (no, not the one in the Bob Marley song). Look in the dictionary, or ask a radio guy. (Back)

2. The Dragons seems to have been a hoax, according to my informant. (Back)

3. But on the second thought, maybe not so small. I came across a wonderful book, Sock Monkeys. Here, people excercized amazing creativity exactly because, 1. they could see the actual sock monkey, 2. they couldn't get it precisely (only some patterns and basic instructions), and 3. They were free to make derivatives. I don't think this would have happened if they sold the ready-made sock monkeys at the local convenience store. No doubt, some would. There are people who customize Barbie Dolls (like Bondage Barbies), but the level of their variety would have been far lower. (Back)



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