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Monday, September 24, 2012

Artists and Culture in the Digital Age

First, a note of congratulations to my friend and regular Prawfs contributor Glenn Cohen, whose series of posts on Personhood in these pages last year was selected by The Post as among the best legal blogging around. Congrats Glenn and PrawfsBlawg!

Returning to our regularly scheduled programming...

I am in the midst of an ethnographic study on the emergence of culture and cultural artifacts in the digital age. My findings and conclusions will make an appearance in my dissertation, where I will argue for a sociology of IP law on the Internet and in the physical world. In any event, while I am always on the hunt for past research on how artists create (any recommendations are most welcome!), I thought I would share one typical story with the Prawfs community.

Kirk is a fashion designer who stepped into digital design when one of his clients asked him to design a website and iPhone and iPad app for a fashion venture. At the time, he had no digital design skills, just a series of MFAs, a ton of fashion design experience, and a moderately successful career creating "looks" for Hollywood stars and starlets. "Clothing comes naturally to me. I see what people are wearing, usually hate it, but learn from it. For example, you're sitting here in a JCrew oxford, a bowtie, jeans (but if I had to guess, they're Paul Smith or John Varvatos or something like that), and top-siders that look like they belonged to your dad. You have a casual elegence, and I love it. But, I would redesign your shirt, your pants."

How, I asked. "Not sure yet." But, then, how do you know they need a redesign. "It's hard to say. Creativity can't be folded into a box. You are too subject to the fashions you see around you. I see what's around me and move beyond it. Much like, I imagine, you do as a law professor. You don't just read what a really smart guy had to say and rewrite it, do you? You read it, learn from it, and write something beyond it, above it, over it, whatever. Next time you go shopping, try to do that with your clothes."

Before that comment, I had never appreciated how much our chosen career involves making pieces of art, themselves elements of culture and parts of history (we hope...). All creation -- from Kirk's new iPad apps to Glenn's writings on "Personhood" to my forthcoming dissertation -- are sociological in that they are products of the environment, encumbrances, and society in which we live, work, and laugh. Marx said that. So did Weber and Durkheim. So did Aristotle. Much of the rest of my career will involve proving this in real and concrete ways to lawyers and legal academics. 

Consider, for example, the arena of intellectual property. If sociologists are right, then "users" and "creators" are not separate categories of persons. The notion that users can graduate to creators misunderstands Kirk's point (and that of almost every other subject in my ethnographic study). Users are creators; creators are users. And, they are both at all times and they are all subject to the context in which they use and create.

Duncan Watts proved this in his Music Lab experiment when he chose approximately 40 unknown songs and asked thousands of people to listen, share, and download. When he divided most of those participants into different worlds such that only members of a given world could see the downloads and shares of other members of their worlds, he found that each world liked different songs: the most popular downloaded song was different in each, as was the hierarchy of popularity. Popularity was subject to the social network ranking them. I argue that this model of creativity and this model of market creation differs from the models underlying our intellectual property regimes. With more time in the coming months (if/when I am honored with the chance to return to the Prawfs community), I will develop this theory more completely.


Posted by Ari Ezra Waldman on September 24, 2012 at 12:21 PM | Permalink


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Culture Days is one more reason to celebrate arts and culture in our community. The recent Brantford International Jazz Festival, Roots and Rails Festival, Brantford Comedy Festival and Doors Open Brant are excellent examples of the quality and diversity of local events.

Posted by: Trademark Application | Sep 25, 2012 12:14:05 AM

Ari, I really enjoyed this entry and look forward to hearing more from you on the topic. As a creative writer and law professor, I find the two modes of writing share plenty of common ground. What we do when we do legal scholarship involves a lot of linguistic and intellectual play. Going "beyond it/above it/over it" is a nice way to conceptualize the creativity inherent in the process.

Posted by: ajr | Sep 25, 2012 12:30:03 PM

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