The idea of copyright did not exist in ancient times, when authors frequently copied other authors at length in works of non-fiction. This practice was useful, and is the only way many authors’ works have survived even in part. – Richard Stallman
We all learn by copying – we start by looking at what other people do and trying to do it ourselves.
We start jobs that way, progress in careers, make choices about what to study and which relationships to be in.
Learning from others is a fundamental part of what it means to be human.
For example I find that teaching children using the content put out by schools is quite hard.
Perhaps it’s the environment, the social urge to conform, that means children will do things in a classroom of their peers that they won’t do with their parents.
It’s easier to say no if they don’t want to do it.
Which means that if you want to get them to do something, a good way is to start with something they do want to do.
Throw away the English worksheets, for example, and start by reading Harry Potter aloud and stop and talk about interesting things you see about the way J.K Rowling uses language.
As you grow up a few things happen.
The first is that, at some point, you finish school, and the expectation to keep studying starts to ease.
Perhaps you go to university, or start a job – but eventually the book learning stops and the job learning starts.
And then forty years go by and that stops as well.
There’s something wrong with this picture – something deeply wrong about what’s happened over the last few hundred years.
And a bit part of it, I’m starting to suspect, has to do with ownership.
Somewhere along the way someone in power decided that it was in the interests of people with power to keep that power.
And, of course, knowledge is power.
So the codification of knowledge started to have walls put around it – because knowing stuff made the difference between having power and not having power.
And this leads to a situation now where you are almost certain to infringe copyright if you do work that does not start with a blank sheet of paper.
If you look at anything else first then that could count as infringement, because what you are making is derived from that original work.
And that leads to some interesting points for creators.
At some point you will decide that you need to grow up.
You’ve spent years learning from the world, from keeping your eyes open and looking out to see whatever is out there.
You’ve sucked in that knowledge, greedily absorbing it and learning from it and adapting it and shaping it and, in the process, finding out more about who you really are.
Now, you have to close the windows, shut the door and face the empty page on your own.
That’s a scary thought, isn’t it?
No more research, no more reading, no more checking what’s out there first?
And yet, it may be as long as we do a few things.
The first thing is to be careful about what we let into our world – we want ideas but not the expressions of those ideas.
Ideas can’t be copyrighted, but once they’re put down in some way then you start to hit those protection issues.
Clearly, the safest course of action is to let nothing in.
Or, in any case, old stuff.
Read the classics, read histories, read the stuff from a long time ago.
That’s out of copyright now and so you’re ok.
And then if you’re still looking for knowledge, read the stuff that’s released under a copyleft licence, something that encourages you to share and borrow and use.
It’s worked brilliantly for software, and maybe it will work for knowledge as well.
I guess something like Wikimedia commons is a starting point.
I think the sad thing about this kind of thinking is that knowledge should set you free – but instead it’s used to chain and bind people.
And the only way to get away from that is to refuse to play that game.
But few people have the courage to do that.
Stallman, for example, set out to develop a “clean room” version of Unix, locking himself away and writing the components he needed and it’s because of that work that we have a free software ecosystem and the alternatives we use now.
The editor I’m writing this in is emacs – Stallman’s emacs.
I’m going to try and experiment for a few weeks.
I’m going to see if I can write these posts without research, without references – only creating original work starting with a blank sheet of paper.
I don’t know if that’s even possible.
Shall we find out?
p.s. I’ve now set up a dedicated Twitter account at @HndcrftdInsight for this project and to collect ideas that might help with future posts.