|Wednesday, April 26, 2000
- The Secret of Creativity
The secret of all creativity is this:
All Creativity is Derivative.
I think I want to call this "Clarke-Willson's Law".
Way back in the dawn of prehistory there must have been something that was not derivative. And from time-to-time I suspect truly original knowledge is created that is not obviously derived from anything that went before.
But generally speaking, everything is derivative.
One reason I admire George Lucas so much is that his work is clearly derivative and yet has a freshness and originality to it that is remarkable. Sometimes he crosses the line but I can't think of a good example right now.
So, even if you were to somehow identify all of the sources of information and inspiration for a George Lucas movie - previous movies, The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell, his love for car racing, whatever - there's no way you could predict that something like the speed-bike chase in Return of the Jedi would pop out of his mind.
So, it's not bad that everything is derivative.
It's not that bad, in our current society, that Microsoft steals boatloads of product ideas.
We've got this basic problem that forward progress -creatively, intellectually, product-wise, environmentally, whatever - is based on everything that went before it.
And yet we want - or at least I think it would advantageous - to reward innovators (upstream people) for their work without the fear that they'll be driven out of business by a big behometh that can easily out-perform them by superior downstream sales and distribution.
Some ideas are more obviously derivative than others.
In fact, some ideas are direct rip-offs.
JP, an associate of mine who thinks all of this is a bunch of crap, holds the opinion that in principle it is impossible to detect whether an idea is original or a rip-off. I agree that I have no way to show that we can detect with any kind of scientific (i.e., repeatable) precision whether two ideas were developed independently (regardless of their antecedents).
Other times, someone might take one idea and change it around so much that it is unrecognizable. For instance, George Lucas (or someone on his team) had the idea of naming the spaceships after the letters of the alphabet and using those basic shapes to inspire the design.
Isaac Asimov had the idea of giving cute monikors to robots. George Lucas used that idea in Star Wars. Frank Herbert had the idea of big giant worms living in the sand in a desert planet. George Lucas used that idea in Star Wars.
Other parts of Star Wars are more obviously deriviative. While I don't think that the Pod Race is really that close to the chariot race in Ben Hur (I rented the video to check it out), the music for the flag parade just before the pod race is a lot like the music just before chariot race in Ben Hur. There are other obvious musical derivatives such as The Planets by Holst. It's tempting to blame John Williams for the music that's a little too derivative, but since Williams doesn't seem to have that problem for any other films he's worked on, I think the problem is in the direction Williams is given.
Just so you know - I consider all of Star Wars hugely original work, even when sometimes it's a bit easy to pick the antecedents.
In my own case, when working on games, the only way to communicate is by making reference to other games. Our business in the post-Atari-meltdown world is only about 15 years old and we don't have a well-defined lexicon for talking about interactivity. How can the game help but be derivative? Plus, consumers (game players) don't like it when you go too far out on a limb with them. That want something recognizable they can connect with.
I have to design (when I get around to it) about 50 caverns for C.I.N.D.-E 1.4. I have an idea that is derivative of the space-ships-based-on-letters idea that will let me create a lot of caverns quickly. Too bad I won't tell you what it is.
In our current society, the expression of an idea can be copyrighted, and some processes can be patented. But I can take an idea and munge it around with a different expression and print it all I want. I'm doing it right now with Galambos' work. (I think he would want me to or else he wouldn't have published his book. He could have continued with his contractual disclosure indefinitely.)
The problem with patents (or even copyright), or even publishing scientific work first to get primary credit for the development of a new scientific idea, is that two people can create the same new concept, possibly cloaked in different forms, nearly simultaneously. As JP says, there is no way to determine who came first. If we really want to encourage innovation, then the patent shouldn't go to the first guy that happens to submit the form correctly and hire the right legal team to work the system and obtain the patent.
So, to summarize: everything is derivative and nothing is completely original, and that makes this whole business of creating a system that rewards innovation incredibly difficult.
In the short term, contractual disclosure is probably your best bet. Sadly, creating a good disclosure contract is probably pretty hard. Still, it's always good to leave a paper trail in case you do end up in court defending your ownership of your own intellectual property.
[Once again, nearly all of the ideas are from Galambos. I've updated his examples with more modern examples that are interesting to most people. Star Wars is more accessible then boring stuff like who invented alternating current distribution system (it was Tesla - boy was that guy smart). But I want credit for Clarke-Willson's law: All Creativity is Derivative.]
Next Volitional Science Article
Back to 'Random Blts' Table of Contents
Back to Above the Garage Productions