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Future creativity: Is originality dead?

Is originality dead? Never before have we been more clear how little we know, and how much is still to be discovered and invented. Yet copying is rife. How do we protect future creativity?

At various points in history people seem to have decided that there’s nothing left to be invented. That we have exhausted the possibilities for music, art, and science. Inevitably they are proved wrong. Today we’re more aware of what we don’t know than ever before. It’s clear that we are only beginning our journey of discovery as a species.

And yet originality does seem to be suffering. This isn’t about the endless recycling of trends in all spheres of life. But rather about the speed with which all original ideas are replicated and distributed now. To the point where the quirky becomes ubiquitous in a matter of hours.

What sparks this post is not, as it may have been, Melania Trump’s speech, lifted in part from a previous speech by Michelle Obama. Instead it is inspired by the ongoing battle between independent artists including Tuesday Bassen, and the global fashion behemoth, Inditex, owner of the Zara and Bershka brands. If the images posted by these artists are to be believed — and they are quite compelling — Zara has been fairly systematically copying the ideas of independent artists from online stores and reproducing their products at scale.

They aren’t the first. One of the consequences of a digitally-enabled, globally connected society is that an idea can travel across the world from one designer to another, and from there into the supply chain, and on to the stores in a matter of days. In the future, it will be hours. Maybe even minutes, with hyper-local, on-demand production.

What future creativity? How do we protect originality in these circumstances? How do we reward and incentivise it?

Rewarding future creativity

Creativity is often seen as being its own reward, but even artists need to eat. Too often creative talent is devalued. Jobs offered for ‘exposure’. Music and arts squeezed out of the curriculum. Yes, you can be extremely creative in science, maths and English. But that creativity is always enhanced by cross-pollination with other, explicitly creative disciplines where the creative muscles can be developed.

Google may have part of the answer. Its Content ID system may be unloved by the music industry, who claim it isn’t effective enough at identifying unlicensed use of their properties. But if Google is to be believed it identifies 99.7% of copies of tunes in its database. Content ID automatically notifies copyright owners, allowing them to monetise user-generated content that infringes their rights.

Imagine a system like this that allows individuals to protect their rights to creative works of all types around the world. The complexities of global copyright may make it hard to enforce legally. But much more shaming of the type that Inditex is experiencing now may convince large retail brands to sign up. And it would provide a simple source of discovery and a single source of evidence for those who have been infringed. Even if the person doing the infringing is another small business or sole practitioner — as has happened to a well-known illustrator friend — this would be a way to monitor that and at least socially enforce some sort of control.

Would this be a good thing? It would undoubtedly be abused. By large corporates (as happened in this case) and spiteful individuals.

Either way, I think we’ll see something like this before too long.

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Tom Cheesewright