Editor's note: Rob Salkowitz is an author and business analyst specializing in the future of entertainment, media and technology. His latest book is "Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture" (McGraw-Hill, 2012). Follow him @robsalk.
"Star Wars." "Raiders of the Lost Ark." "Kill Bill." What do these canonical works of nerd-cinema have in common?
That is, they pay “homage” – through the wholesale appropriation of scenes, characters, plot structures and even shot-framing - to the objects of their directors’ obsessions. Still, they are all recognized as vastly influential, popular, and, yes, original works.
So maybe they’re not really rip-offs: they’re remixes.
This process of “innovation through imitation” is how most creativity functions, according to filmmaker, TED-talker and cultural provocateur Kirby Ferguson, maker of the wildly popular series of web videos “Everything is a Remix.” And, he points out, the artists and inventors who break through with new ideas that capture our imagination are frequently folks who have obsessed endlessly over the details of whatever genre, style or body of work that captured their fancy.
In other words, they’re nerds. And that’s what made them great.
Raiders of the lost art
Why do even the most celebrated creative minds sometimes resort to grand larceny? According to Ferguson, learning and copying from influences is an important first step in gaining mastery of a craft.
“The three building blocks of creativity are copy, combine and transform,” says Ferguson. Copying is a part of artistic maturation, and a good use of some of the ten thousand hours that Malcolm Gladwell has famously claimed are necessary to become an expert.
Once an artist has assimilated enough influences, he or she can begin combining those works with increasing craft and confidence. The very best then find a way to take good ideas a step further, transforming them into something new and exciting, if not 100% original.
Ferguson says this process is not just evident in art, but in all areas of human creativity, including technology. Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs stole shamelessly from peers and predecessors, adding just enough of their own gloss and insight to achieve the next big breakthrough.
It’s all fan fiction
Fan fiction is a great nerd-culture example of an ecosystem set up around the creative principles that Ferguson describes. The writers of fan fiction are completely immersed in their influences. You can’t write a good "Buffy" or "Star Trek" pastiche unless you know the universe and its characters inside and out.
Accomplished practitioners of fan fiction build on and embroider existing worlds using their own imaginative and narrative skills. And when they do, sometimes they transcend their surroundings and produce a work that is as successful and influential as the source.
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were hard-core science fiction nerds who devoured and imitated the pulps, matinee movies and adventure comic strips of the 1930s. Eventually one product of their fan-fiction mashup of Doc Savage, the Lensmen, and an obscure 1930s novel called "Gladiator" – a preposterous alien hero in an opera cape and long underwear they called “Superman” – hit the big time. In more modern times, as practically the entire western world now knows, "50 Shades of Grey" emerged from "Twilight" fan-fiction.
Remix or rehash?
Ferguson’s video essays show how artists and inventors have remixed their influences into original work throughout history. But in today’s pop culture, external pressures are threatening to short-circuit the process.
Copying is a cinch. Digital media makes it ridiculously easy to appropriate existing material for remix and reuse. “You can copy and paste, string together clips from other films,” says Ferguson. “You can build on the work of other people. But the flip side is, maybe you don’t build. Maybe you just ape what other people are doing.”
Ah, the perils of nostalgia - while it inspires obsession, it can be a creative crap shoot. “I think there’s an ebb and flow to culture," Ferguson says. "There are eras when not much is going on. [The timing] is just luck.”
In today’s world of sequels, franchises and reboots, originality isn’t just out of fashion; it’s practically box office poison. When hundreds of millions of dollars are on the line, risk-averse producers clearly prefer the tried and true. Unfortunately, that leads to a climate where it seems to make more sense to blow the dust off a moldy old property like 'John Carter,' or reboot a relatively recent success like 'Spider-Man' or 'Total Recall,' rather than gamble on someone’s new crazy new idea – assuming they could even find one.
Copyright cops and patent trolls
Ferguson observes how the growing complexity of intellectual property has given rise to aggressive litigiousness. This not only creates formal barriers to innovation that skirts too close to existing products, as Samsung recently found out the hard way, but also extends a chilling effect to all kinds of art that’s based on “owned” ideas.
As a result of this trend, the public domain – the common pool of folkloric ideas and stories that creators can draw from for influence – is aging and shrinking, with potentially calamitous results.
“All those old Disney cartoons – 'Cinderella,' 'Snow White,' 'Song of the South' – were basically folk tales that Disney used for free,” Ferguson says, “But now that some of their original creations like Mickey Mouse are approaching the end of their copyrights, they are arguing for even longer terms of legal protection."
In other words, intellectual property owners are pulling up the ladder for today’s talent after they’ve climbed to the top. With fewer inspirations on which they can legally draw, artists and inventors have less latitude to do the copying necessary to drive original creation.
“Creators in the 1920s and 30s had a big, rich public domain to draw from, and that’s where a lot of those great characters [like Superman] came from,” Ferugson says. “The rest of us have a right to that.”