What We Have To Learn From Fashion’s Free Culture

This is a rather old video (mid-2010 according to ted.com’s timestamp) but it’s made me think rather hard about copyright, books, and the publishing industry:

The gist of the talk is in this graph:

Gross Sales Of Goods IP

(Point: that whole industries do just fine without Intellectual Property protection.)

Now, I do question one of the assumptions behind this: while it is true that fashion, food and furniture cannot be copyrighted, and that these industries are still highly innovative, we should also remember that they are more necessary than music, films, and books. Gross sales is an oversimplification of the effects of copyright: certainly more people would buy clothes than they would books!

But, that said, her primary example holds true. High fashion is indeed still very lucrative (and creative!) without IP protection. Would publishing be in a similar environment if books were not copyrightable? It doesn’t take much to imagine a world in which fan-fiction is sanctioned, where riffing on the books you love is a norm.

So here’s a thought experiment: if for one year all copyright were to be revoked (or demoted to a Creative Commons-like attribution-only license) would innovation increase worldwide, or would the opposite happen? Would this be good for society?

Writers like Nicholas Carr have argued that our digital culture values mashups over source material. I disagree with that (I believe both are equally valued, and equally valuable, though we should perhaps leave that argument for another day); I suspect that the world would benefit as the rate of innovation increases in response to these freedoms.

What I’m not certain about is how this would affect the creators. Would they benefit, if at all? Or would the benefits only show themselves after the industry has had to make do without copyright, like how the fashion industry has had to do?

I will admit, though: a future where Pride and Prejudice and Zombies can then be combined with Twilight and Buffy The Vampire Slayer sounds like a very fun world indeed.

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Category: Publishing
  • Bill

    What also sounds fun is a world where people get paid for the stuff the original stuff they produce.

    I have no problem with someone getting a million hits on YouTube for a Star Wars spoof. But I’d like George Lucas who actually came up with it to get his rightful cut if someone tries to charge for it.

  • http://elijames.org Eli James

    The argument here is that it’s possible to make money while allowing mashups (and other forms of copying) to flourish. If what she argues is true – that the lessons the fashion industry has learnt may be used by other industries, then we have a bright future ahead of us, no?

  • G.S. Williams

    I really don’t think it’s that interesting a comparison or possibility, really.  Sorry, Eli, because I’m always happy to see a new post and usually your thoughts and insights are provocative and interesting.

    But in this case, I don’t think there’s that much going on.  People already have free access to making mash-ups of literary characters of the past — King Arthur, Robin Hood, Hercules and the Musketeers are all public domain, as well as Pride and Prejudice, Jekyll and Gilgamesh.  And while “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” was fun, I really hate walking into a book store and finding a dozen fictional books about King Arthur, another dozen on Roman times, and another big bunch on wizards.

    There isn’t that much innovation or creativity in writing when creators’ rights are protected — how does opening up modern characters change that when so many variations on Camelot are boring and derivative?  It won’t improve the situation any, we’ll just see more derivation.

  • http://elijames.org Eli James

    Hrmm. Well, I’m not sure either way, to be honest, Gavin. But I’ll refrain from further comments until I’ve got my (mostly confused!) thoughts sorted out.