Financial Times columnist Stefan Stern has a question for all of us: what, he wonders, is "original content"?
But Stern asks the question rhetorically. He already knows the answer. His FT article, tendentiously entitled "Intellectual property rules block the search for new ideas", suggests there is no such thing as original content. To Stern, all content is the result of the "remixing" or "mashing-up" of culture. Even Shakespeare, apparently, can be reduced to being "reheated Plautus." Stern, of course, has been seduced by the fashionable Jonathan Lethem/Larry Lessig cultural commons school whose "dangerous idea" is that all creative thought is a footnote to somebody else's footnote to somebody else's footnote (Einsteinian, eh?). Thus, the Lethemites and Lessigites conclude, media companies have a moral obligation toward the rest of society to share their content. Share or stifle human creativity -- these legal moralites say. To support this idea, Stern even steals some words of wisdom from T.S. Elliot about the art of the remix:
"Bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different."
Exactly. The problem on the open source Web 2.0 is that 99.9% of the self-posted poets are bad. Our moral challenge, if we really care about hatching new ideas, is to figure out how to separate the good poets from the bad ones (which mainstream media has been doing very effectively for centuries). Today's dangerous idea should be about discovering and rewarding talent -- not stifling it in a collective egalitarian yawn.
So back to Stern's original question. What is "original content" anyway? It's original ideas, Stefan. And what is blocking the search for new ideas isn't intellectual property law -- it's old ideas. What is blocking the search for new ideas are people who use the IP excuse for churning out the same tired old nonsense about the legal dictatorship of mainstream media. So next time somebody blames intellectual property law for stifling new ideas, tell them that's an old idea. It's bad poetry too.