my turn


Beg, Borrow And Steal, Just Don't Hoard Those Ideas

I had to explain the origin of the name "TED Talks" to my daughter last night. I suppose it's worth recounting the apocryphal tale here. There was a boy named Ted. He would not shut up. His parents took him to doctors, witches, therapists, practitioners of Santeria, a Marine drill sergeant and various pundits claiming to know something about loquacious children.  

Then, one day a bee flew into his mouth during a diatribe leveled at his parents at 3:30 a.m. about pretzels, and stung him on the inside of the cheek. He spoke not a word for the ensuing 30 years, becoming something of a celebrity on the otolaryngology circuit. Then one day he sat up and said “I have something very important to say.” 

His father, seeing this, ran through the streets of Cambridge shouting “Ted Talks!” “Ted Talks!” Ted was hauled before a large audience screened specifically for sensitivity, yearly income, and proof of Subaru ownership. He said, “Coffee. Get me coffee.” This was roundly interpreted as a broadside against commerce tofu and mixed green salads. The end. 



I listened to an amazing series of TED Talks last night, by the way. It was about copying ideas, like I just did above (Woody Allen's exact style, unsuccessfully). A major theme was that the copycat, not necessity, is the mother of invention, and the greatest leaps forward were collaborative, or even larcenous. The iPhone, one TED speaker said, is an ingenious assembly of stolen ideas. Steve Jobs, apparently, admitted as much, and then later lambasted Android as a direct ripoff. So calling an idea “borrowed” or “stolen” depends on your perspective. Or your lawyer's.

How about fashion? Another speaker explained that in the fashion world you can only patent what you've drawn, meaning just the two-dimensional expression of a sartorial design. Once that idea is realized in three dimensions, as apparel, it is open season on stealing. And that is how trends evolve in the fashion business, she explained. Designers are constantly rummaging for inspiration in the bargain basement of history or boutique shelves. 

Mark Ronson, producer of Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black" and writer/producer of Bruno Mars' "Uptown Funk," argued the obvious: one cannot possibly do anything new in music without building on what has been done, perhaps by appropriating other peoples' riffs, artists, styles, and motifs. What is Winehouse's "Rehab" song but a gospel tune re-imagined for drug problems. And, of course, hip-hop sampling is nothing but appropriation of other peoples' riffs. 

And Led Zeppelin is now dealing with a lawsuit from an artist who has accused them of stealing his riff for their use as the intro for "Stairway to Heaven." Is contrafact (a word I confess I just learned) a kind of theft? An example of that is Charlie Parker lifting the changes from "How High the Moon" for his song "Ornithology." Or how about "Ko-Ko," which is based on Ray Noble's "Cherokee." The practice was common in the beebop era, where musicians constantly "stole" from the Great American Songbook. 

Advertising has always stolen from itself, but now, because of the diffusion of creative back and forth across whatever is left of the membrane between "ads" and content, it also "owns" fewer and fewer original ideas. It is a diffuse and permeable world, less about original content flowing forth from an agency than about collaboration toward this thing called authenticity. 

Social media appropriates advertising motifs, and advertising appropriates social media and uses its creators. Ad creative, such as it is, is becoming more meta-textual as it comments on the influence of advertising. It’s an opposing mirror game, where ads comment on how they believe themselves to be perceived through the eyes of social media. All advertising is now designed like a nicotine patch, with creative built to diffuse right through the skin of digital media and right to the collective consciousness. 

On the product development side, well, Tesla founder Elon Musk made it clear he sees the litigious culture of patent protectionism as a serious threat to innovation, having recently announced that he would offer up proprietary technology for free to anyone at all who is developing electric cars. 

He is no doubt savvy to the patent trolling situation, which is  killing innovation. It’s practitioners scarf up patents and spuriously sue the hell out of anyone who could remotely be seen as having infringed. That’s like buying an acre of land because the city wants to widen the adjacent road, and saying, "That will be $5 million, please."

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