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Looser Intellectual Property Rules Are Good for You and the Economy

By Published on .

The concept of original intellectual property, which has moved to the front burner in recent history, seems to now be bubbling over.
One recent remix project that drew the ire -- and action -- of the Beatles lawyers was Danger Mouse's 'The Grey Album,' which incorporated Beatles material. | ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opinion' box below.
One recent remix project that drew the ire -- and action -- of the Beatles lawyers was Danger Mouse's 'The Grey Album,' which incorporated Beatles material. | ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opinion' box below.

Bristly e-mails flow regularly into the Creativity offices from people who are angered (directly or vicariously) that we have showcased an ad that is clearly "a rip-off" of another. We do encounter shameful copies more often than is ideal, but typically we don't pick up the pitchfork and torch on behalf of a party that feels it's been wronged. Here's why: If you watch ads constantly for several years, a few things happen. Among the less mentally devastating, you come to realize, as Leo Burnett himself did, that an "original" ad is a rare thing, that many ads mix existing cultural items (including other ads) and that the cultural item on which any ad was based was in turn based on another cultural item -- and there's nothing necessarily wrong with that. In fact it's the stuff of which culture is made.

Apple, oddly enough (in that the company seems pretty fastidious about its own IP), has run afoul of the originality hawks with an iPod ad, a chip ad, an iPhone ad and, recently, marketing materials for AppleTV. But then again, Apple's greatest ad (the greatest ad ever, according to some) is also "unoriginal" right down to its name -- 1984. Yet it embodies one of the cornerstones of creativity -- making something new from something that came before.

It all leads us into the much larger issue of copyright, which grows more thorns by the day. The same technology that's allowed your consumer to engage with your brand allowed her to get all up in everyone's IP and has spawned new genres of art. So are current copyright laws a protector of artists' rights or an enemy of artistic innovation? Filmmakers Ralf Christensen, Andreas Johnsen and Henrik Moltke explored both perspectives and the enormous, creatively fecund area in between in "Good Copy Bad Copy," a neat documentary that summarizes the state of copyright laws in a remix culture (I just ripped off that phrase). The film includes interviews with academics, artists such as Danger Mouse (whose non-retail hit "The Grey Album," one interviewee notes, made money for no one involved -- save the Beatles' lawyers), and others representing different perspectives on the value and risks of reforming (or not reforming) restrictive copyright laws.

Says Christensen, "We saw copyright as a battlefield for the development of a new world. And we saw a strong need for focusing on the nuances, not black vs. white."

Earlier this spring, Eric Faden, a professor at Bucknell University, whipped up a delightful copyright primer of his own, "A Fair(y) Use Tale." Using wickedly edited clips of Disney classics old and new, Faden has the likes of Buzz Lightyear, the Beast and the Little Mermaid explain copyright and fair use. A big point here, of course, is that it's large media outfits that typically have the least fluid attitude toward copyright. But as Creative Commons framer (and "remix culture" coiner) Larry Lessig notes in "Good Copy Bad Copy," there is a broader economy involved. "Freedom drives a more vibrant and important economy than restriction. Of course we have to protect copyright in a way that encourages creativity, but we ought to be thinking about how to encourage lots of reuse of this work in a way that drives a much more valuable economy."

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Teressa Iezzi is the editor of Creativity magazine and AdCritic.com. E-mail your big ideas to her at tiezzi@crain.com.
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