Who Owns?

January 15, 2014

Years ago, I read this passage about art and ownership:

Later I would never be surprised by greedy and jealous collectors who didn’t want to exhibit their treasures. Of course! One glance, and the occasional viewer would become a co-owner. A piece could be put back then, and never shown again, but the viewer now remembered what he saw. Maybe even, more terribly, he saw in that one glance more than the real owner had ever seen. Who, then, was the owner? Everything was suddenly reversed!

Kozhina, Elena. Through the Burning Steppe. New York: Riverhead Books, 2000. 157.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently in the context of the tech industry, from everything from pushing open source code to writing blog posts to sending a tweet out.

You have certain legal protections when you create a creative work, of course. Open source has licenses, writing is covered by copyright. That’s not the scary part, though. What’s fascinating is when you think beyond just ripoffs, past facsimiles. It’s the remix, the sampling, the improvement of existing ideas. Sometimes the finished product may have nothing to do with the original work: maybe you’re compelled to write a song after seeing a particular painting that moved you.

If I’m honest to myself, this is what I fear whenever I create something in the public eye. What if people don’t like it? More unsettlingly, what if I completely missed the mark? What if someone comes in with a rebuttal and writes their own post about how misled I was?

It’s a little daunting. And I think this is why people stay out of it — not to even mention anything about dealing with the trolls and assholes online. It’s a little scary to admit that the idea we have, the perspective we have, could be appropriated by someone else, in ways we didn’t imagine. Will they improve what I’ve done, or will I be the butt of a joke? Is this photo I took going to end up being the basis of a meme on reddit?

You concede that power to the reader. They can do what they want with how they interpret you. It’s then tempting hold on to that idea and tell no one, because then at least you can keep that power, you can keep that treasure.

It’s a feeling that’s hard to shake. But where did you get your idea from, anyway? Everything is a remix, on some level. And it’s this incremental improvement that improves all of us. Realizing that should give you the motivation to create, to be public about those creations when you can. It doesn’t have to be as scary as we fear. It’s how humans operate. Help people create their own ownership.

So create. And tell people.