Kirby Ferguson on How Creativity Comes from Without, Not from Within

Try imagining a make-believe creature that has absolutely no basis in reality. Can you? Not really. The truth is, everything imaginary is simply a rehash of things that actually exist… just in a combination that doesn’t exist. Aliens are simply strange combinations of humans and other creatures that we know. Unicorns are horses with horns. Bigfoot is some guy that accidentally spilled Rogaine all over his body.

This is the basis for writer Kirby Ferguson’s big idea: that “everything is a remix.” He created a popular four part video series on this topic over the past year, and recently he was invited by TED to give the condensed, sub-10-minute version of it that’s shown above.

Ferguson argues that copying, transforming, and combining are the basic elements of creativity that are used by any creative artist — elements that often cause the photography world to cry foul and point accusing fingers of plagiarism.

The fact is, much of this stealing/borrowing may occur unintentionally. One photographer or artist sees the work of another, enjoys it, and then forgets about it. Sometime later, when the work suddenly bubbles up in the photographer’s mind, he or she mistakenly believes that it’s an original new creation that they themselves came up with without any outside influence.

In other cases, the borrowing could very well be very intentional, or even malicious. A famous quote uttered by Picasso is that “good artists copy, great artists steal.”

This lecture by Ferguson is a fascinating look into the nature of “creating things” in our mind, and may change the way you think about “original work”:

Our creativity comes without, not from within. We are not self made. We are dependent on one another, and admitting this to our selves isn’t an embrace of mediocrity, and derivativeness — it’s a liberation from our misconceptions. And it’s an incentive, to not expect so much from ourselves, and to simply begin.

  • Samcornwell

    You wouldn’t sell someone a photo online just so they can look at it or put it on their desktop, would you? What makes music special? The sole purpose for creating the digital file was so it can be copied. Copied, duplicated, shared, sent, saved, deleted. Evolve or Die.

  • Jonathan Maniago

    Somewhere down the line, there’s bound to be a comment on Apple, Samsung, and more blatant Chinese copycats.

  • Richard

    I wonder how Kirby would feel if someone took his “Everything is a remix” idea and remixed it, put their name on it and wrote a book on it (with a copyright on it).

  • rtfe

    that’s been done already. twice

  • freakqnc

    I may be wrong Richard, but your comment seem to try hard though subtly to bring up a point of contention so that people of opposite opinion would start flame-warring much like “fanboism” of the fruity or robotic kind tends to be headed every time the topic of “copying” is brought up.

    There is an inherent “contradictio in terminis” in the concept mentioned where someone would taking a concept like “Everything is a remix” and would then be putting a copyright on it. That doesn’t mean that the patent system in clear need of a huge overhaul wouldn’t be glad to comply and patent nonsense as it’s been doing for years for the joy of all patent lawyers across the globe. Besides copyrighting an opinion which many will share already isn’t something that a sensible legal system would allow.
    The author of the book in your hypothetical case is entitled to protect himself from intellectual property theft of course. Nobody should be allowed to take the content of his book verbatim and republish it as is slapping their name on it as much as nobody should be able to make copies of his book if he is not willing to share his work free of those limitations. For that there are already enough copyrights laws in place that would protect “illegal” copy of the content in that copyrighted book.
    That said you will certainly agree that the author of that book won’t be able to “patent” or copyright abstract concepts, ideas, or opinions. In the event you do think the author should be able to then that’s where we’ll have to agree to disagree as it would be an irreconcilable difference between our positions :)
    But to answer about what you are wondering about with a speculation of my own, I believe that a possibility could be that in the same spirit, Kirby would probably continue expanding on the ongoing debate adding his own reflections and likely releasing a book or other form of creative remix under Creative Commons License. And should he be in dire straights, then he may ask a “whatever you like” donation to those who enjoy his work and want to support his efforts. :)
    Then again if you are genuinely interested in how he would feel about “if someone took his “Everything is a remix” idea and remixed it, put their name on it and wrote a book on it (with a copyright on it).” why don’t you ask him directly in addition to share your concern with us in the community here… if you do contact him, feel free to post a followup whenever you have time.
    Here is Kirby’s email: kirby [AT] kirbyferguson [DOT] com
    …And best of luck with all your creative efforts!Peace :)

    PS: sadly this edit window doesn’t look like it will allow formatting (such as paragraph breaks) so my post may look like a heavy block, unfortunately there is nothing I can do about it so thanks for your patient there :)

  • wentbackward

    Cool!! So I’m going to procrastinate more, sit on my lazy fat arse watching TV and youtube videos of DigitalRevs Kai playing with gear and basically do nothing … the photo’s will come from ‘without’

  • Richard

    My point, Freak, is that it’s one thing to enjoy watching Kirby make some great points (I’ve been following and enjoying his work for years), quite another to find your own work remixed by others who are maybe making money from it.

    I’ve had this happen a few times so maybe I’m particularly sensitive to it.

  • freakqnc

    I hear you. Indeed you are right in seeking proper repayment for wrongdoing when that happens. Not receiving retribution is as bad as being denied recognition for “something” that was your own work and has been misappropriated by someone else (often friend or business partner). What is perhaps worse though, it’s not getting even a mere acknowledgement from those who knew the work was yours and instead praise the achievement of who made your work theirs, just because they could.

    Not going into any details I have experienced it myself, though I like to think that karma (or call it what you will) eventually will even things out in ways that at times could perhaps be unexpected, which are usually not immediate nor glaringly evident either hence may take us time to realize payback did come… but by then we may be so over it that we may no longer care about it. And such is life :)
    Besides there isn’t much point in feeling sorry and miserable getting upset for when similar things happen… I learnt my lessons and moved on also learning to remix fairly as needed and letting others remix as well if that helps them ;)
    “Remix” involves sharing and communicating and that’s a fact of life. It’s unlikely anyone’s work doesn’t come from the contamination of the work and ideas of others so in some way we all borrow from each other in the creative process or we use others achievements to reach ours. What’s to be shunned is the obsession with keeping something as a “property” forever as that’s where in the long run everyone loses. What if communicating using electro magnetic waves and other forms of transmission of information and content through the ether, was something patented? Could we continue to even talk with each other? Would concerts or public speaking be possible? And all the technology, products and services around them will those ever be built or repressed by armies of lawyers and self righteous people who continue to cry foul strong of the fact that “it’s against the law!”, instead of admitting that such law allowing that patent while may have made somewhat sense a long while ago, it has actually created more damage than good overall, ensuring more retribution than it was worth to the righteous owner of that patent, while inflicting damage to the community who has not been able to leverage it for the common good.
    Copyrights and patenting are definitely a complex matter and reforming is long overdue to remove the absurdity of what it has become today… a feeding frenzy for those in the legal system capitalizing what has become not a way to ensure fairness, but utter self-serving nonsense that more often than not hampers progress and deters and stifles research and innovation.
    There is certainly no one size fit all and should be carefully, publicly and unbiasedly discussed to reform in the most appropriate ways the parts that should be revised to curb the legal insanity ensued in the past few decades.
    For work that’s being created (and that would include that created by myself) when decisions are made not to release it under a Creative Commons License, or other such open licensing methods, then there should be limitation on the longevity of patents and copyrights. While misappropriation should never be the case (hence nobody can ever release someone else’s work claiming it’s their own), appropriate and sensible terms during which the patent or rights holder can recoup the investment and turn a profit should be established after which the creation, work, product, what have you, object of the copyright or patent should be released from it and from having others re-patent or re-copyright the same or derivative work there isn’t substantially different (and for substantially different that’s not changing a few details, functionalities, or capabilities). May be slightly different from product to product (or services) but that alone should be able to ensure those coming up with truly original concept get awarded a patent lasting enough time to recoup investment and when a product or service is successful, the rights/patent holder will turn a product capitalizing on their own ability during the established amount of time recognized to them by law. During such period the right/patent holder can decide to license to others their for a fee avoiding all the legal insanity in the first place and making businesses thrive. At the end of the legal terms for capitalization then anyone will be able to adopt the product/service for an additional period where nominal low one time flat fees licensing will be released for an additional amount of years past which the patent/exclusive rights will expire and what will remain would be just a nominal “paternity” recognition, and perhaps at will donations. I would see a system like that to be far more balanced and fair to everyone and be more of a win-win solution than the mess that we have today crowding court rooms and having end users and consumers paying the price of it, not to mention those talented new companies that could be but would never be able to compete as they would be wiped out in a heartbeat on a legal battlefield.
    When becoming “victims” of such misappropriations or something along those lines happens to us, the most important thing I’ve learned is that we need to continue to look forward and try to never be bitter about the past, wallowing in regret and self-pity. Bitterness and anger will definitely be very likely to happen initially and it’s part of the “getting over it” process… been there myself :| but in our own growth path it’s something that we’ll have to learn to avoid putting our efforts to better use ;)

    Best wishes to you and anyone who’s trying to create something despite the massive obstacles at multiple levels… never stop thinking, never stop dreaming, and always put your efforts into doing what you love to do. That will ensure at least that you wouldn’t be wasting your time during your life… keep creating! :)

  • freakqnc

    Here we go again Moriarty! Don’t hit me with them negative waves so early in the morning ;P Get your point and sarcasm… but it could help everyone (helps me for sure ;D) to keep a slightly more positive attitude and perhaps add your own constructive comment after the criticism of someone else’s position? Just a suggestion that could be taken… or not ;)

  • Aaeru

    Just want to add, no one has ever been able to show that 99% stolen artwork is any less rhetorically effective.

    “…No one has ever been able to show that 99% stolen artwork is any less
    rhetorically effective than 1% stolen artwork, which is kind of the
    point. Sometimes 99.99% stolen artwork happens to be the most effective
    way to communicate a particular point.”

  • Mark Bloggs

    This is interesting. Really it’s true. The light-bulb is a modern candle, which in turn is simply a copy of the sun (light). God is the only TRUE creator ;-)