Sturgeon's law & the copyright vacuum

Your on the job contributions in collaborative environments are much more protected than elsewhere digitally, but getting credit for ideas is critical to continued use pattterns
Written by Oliver Marks, Contributor

Do you have days when you are suddenly exposed to the same image, video or quote over and over again? (I'm not talking about the billion dollar US election campaigns, I mean in your email inbox and whatever social networks you frequent).

Internet memes are as old as the web, but the lack of viable personal filters make it impossible for you not to be subjected to yet another viewing of the hilarious item doing the rounds. In the all year round holiday letter updates (or 'round robin' as the Brits call them) that is Facebook, this practice has reached a critical mass where you often see the pictures of drunken Irishmen or whatever that you first saw in an email in 1998 multiple times across all the social networks.

In some ways this sharing of found stuff culture appears to be a defining aspect of social networks: making your profile a scrapbook of found shiny objects to attract attention. It is also akin to the ways animals mark their territory, as the dog above is busy doing. Intellectual Property is in a weird place in our current era: the internet is global but legal jurisdictions are local to nation states. We like to think of the noble pursuit of creativity as being rewarded by a crowd sourced surge of interest, but the reality is it's getting harder to retain control of ideas and images as the loss of control mechanisms encourages rampant 'sharing' unencumbered by any attempts at creator acknowledgments and attributions - or at worst outright claims of being the originator.

This has ramifications for collaboration inside enterprises because employees, regardless of age, have been 'trained' in their social behaviors by their online activities and exposures in their personal lives. If you're tasked with managing a project with a lot of moving parts and distributed people, having everyone on the same page isn't rocket science but is sometimes these days actually harder to do across various 'social web' style online silos in different departments. Add in the timeless business issues around ownership of ideas in hierarchical organizations and you have some intriguing situations...

Back on the 'consumer' web, large media companies are repeatedly mobilizing to push through crude legislation that will allow them control of their valuable copyrighted assets - a great source of information on all this is the Electronic Frontier Foundation who continue to do sterling work in this area.

If you're working in a company that is paying you to create valuable products that can be digitally sold online there's a particular dissonance in living in a world where digital artifacts fly around freely, unencumbered by any sense of who created them. A foundational aspect of effective teams is acknowledging individual contributions and ideas - and in our modern era that includes 'mashups' of previously created materials first made popular by musicians using samples and loops from other pieces of music.

Musicians have generally been very good historically at attribution of where samples come from, mostly being aware of their fellow musicians livelyhoods, and music lawyers had a field day with rights and proportional payments for snippets of songs in other songs. Youtube is full of bedroom experts explaining and playing the original music that was sampled in popular music, which is a form of self policing by musicians in itself. The same thing is not true of, say, the greeting cards industry. Facebook is full of 'shared' greeting card images and congratulations to the poster comments as though they created the joke, or image or whatever. The same is true of photographs around 'vertical interests' - say skydiving, to continue the sentence metaphor. Where previous web generations would attribute photographers in a tight knit community (and may well have known the person) the ease of creating and publishing to a social network page means these same images are casually shared and commented on with no regard for the original photographer, who may well have spent a fortune taking aerial photographs in the past.

As Andy Baio wrote last year

Under current copyright law, nearly every cover song on YouTube is technically illegal. Every fan-made music video, every mashup album, every supercut, every fanfic story? Quite probably illegal, though largely untested in court.

No amount of lawsuits or legal threats will change the fact that this behavior is considered normal — I'd wager the vast majority of people under 25 see nothing wrong with non-commercial sharing and remixing, or think it's legal already.

There's arguably little difference between YouTube and Megaupload, particularly if you are the creator of imagery and sounds being freely consumed by anyone with a mobile or internet connection. The one differentiator is Sturgeon's Law, which is that "ninety percent of everything is crud" and was coined by Theodore Sturgeon, an American science fiction author. On the idea that in the case of digital materials quality materials float to the top, the only materials that really matter are those which are popular, a tenet which the big commercial media houses have always depended on for marketing profitable materials. (This is presumably why bafflingly bad music sells in the millions - a combination of lowest common denominator poor taste and marketing push).

Sturgeon's Law is presumably also why we often ferret around online looking for quality artifacts, which many now feel the need to share with broad groups of online acquaintances. Our personal online swap meet, flea market or whatever your culture would call it is a very different place to your work world where you have been hired to perform certain tasks, share information with colleagues as needed and ensure that sensitive information isn't shared with competitors. If you're working at Apple Computer, one of the most secretive and draconian work cultures on the planet, you will know all about that....

At work we're already inundated with overlapping and sometimes contradictory email threads which suck time and energy, along with endless live meetings which are informed by the same themes. The goal of effective collaboration is to free up time, resources and energies by orchestrating a well organized workplace where you know where to find information and people. Magpie shiny object collecting and sharing has no place collectively in these environments (outside of recreational social online areas intended for that purpose). This seems obvious but is an increasing threat to well run collaborative environments...

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