“The future of creativity”


The quotes are intentional. I was asked to give the opening talk at the CREATe ‘All Hands’ conference in Glasgow last week, which took place in the House for An Art Lover.

House for an Art Lover

House for an Art Lover

CREATe is the RCUK Centre for Copyright and New Business Models in the Creative Economy, based at the University of Glasgow. It is funded jointly by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). CREATe investigates the future of creative production in the digital age, and in particular the role of copyright.

This is the paper I wrote and formed the basis for what I said, mostly. I’ll post audio and the slides soon – I’ve left the placeholders in to show me where they go.


To Begin

Talking about creativity is like explaining a joke.

It’s a valuable public service, but you never laugh the same way afterwards.


[00 xkcd 530]]

Sometimes it’s necessary – as here on the explainxkcd wiki where the more obscure references in Randall Munroe’s geeky comic strip are analysed, explained and contextualised.

For example:



[01 explainxkcd 530

http://www.explainxkcd.com/wiki/index.php/530:_I%27m_An_Idiot ]

However, here we go.

I create, you copy, they mess around
As Martin Kretschmer, CREATe’s Director, pointed out earlier this year


Creative Industries in a Knowledge Society

[02 blog post screenshot]

The digital revolution has moved copyright law to the regulatory centre of the creative industries…We hear wildly conflicting claims about the value of intangible assets, about the benefits of open and closed models of innovation to firms and society, about the potential of massive collaborative projects (wikinomics), about the impediments that existing copyright arrangements pose for new derivative markets (mass digitisation, translation services, social media), and about the link between unauthorised consumer activities and lost sales.

And indeed, the legal framework around the products of creative activity is indeed a contested one.

But it’s worth stepping back and considering that ‘creativity’ is not just something that ‘creative people’ do in the ‘creative industries’. It is all pervasive.

We create.

It’s what we do as a species and is therefore unavoidable.

03 john locke

[03 veil of perception

“JohnLocke” by Sir Godfrey Kneller – State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:JohnLocke.png#mediaviewer/File:JohnLocke.png]

Creativity is the centre of consciousness: every moment we each create a world out of sense data and model our observed reality, constantly testing our hypotheses against observation, refining them and continuing to refine and test as long as we think.

As well as being pervasive, creativity is innate. Like language, it’s something that we can’t help.

And as with language, we do things to enhance our creativity. Just as literacy takes the affordances of language and builds in each of us a machine that allows us to externalise knowledge and gain access to the accumulated record of other people’s thoughts, efforts and creative expression (reading and writing), so we build tools to make this enhanced creativity possible.

They are legion:

04 sumerian cone

[04 Sumerian cone

Walters Art Museum [Public domain, CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons]

Drawing and writing.





05 Stonehenge_size_sense[05 Stonehenge

By Me haridas (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons]

Tribes and cultures.

[06 Gutenberg press

By Ghw at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons]

Printing presses and cameras.

[07 Cambridge

my photo]

Monasteries, libraries and universities.

As the tools have developed, so have our talents.

Over the last seventy-five years we’ve built electronic computers and networks that move bits around, getting faster every year, as described in the ill-named ‘laws’ of Moore and Koomey.

[08 Edsac

EDSAC I control desk, E. Page.

Copyright Computer Laboratory, University of Cambridge. Reproduced by permission.

Copyright and Licensing information.


09 old laptop

By Johann H. Addicks (own photo, deriving from Gallery) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons


The writer Bruce Sterling notes that when a laptop can only edit code or text, you use it to write documents, but that once it can process images or edit audio or film then you start doing those things.

The scope for creative expression has been so enhanced by the current generation of tools that the limit is now our imagination. If you can dream it, you can live it. Just as architects were freed from the need to understand how to shape steel by new materials – so that Liebeskind’s crumpled piece of paper could become a buildable design.

And it is this outpouring of creativity that has created the problems that Martin referred to and which CREATe is trying to address. It’s not the fault of the technology- it’s us. We are the pesky kids.

[10 Scooby doo : LA Times Festival of Books 2012 – Scooby-Doo’s Mystery Machine

By The Conmunity – Pop Culture Geek from Los Angeles, CA, USA [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons]

Show Me the Money
Here’s a diagram showing industries affected by the internet.

[10 pie chart]

The ‘creative’ industries are not exempt.

A Digression in Print
We can perhaps learn something from the newspaper industry.

But first, I have a confession to make: I destroyed it – with some help from the senior managers at Guardian Media Group and my colleagues in the New Media Lab here at Ray St, next to The Guardian’s old Farringdon office.

[12 Farringdon – Ray St

my photo]

I was Head of New Media at The Guardian in 1995 and built the paper’s first website.

I persuaded Alan Rusbridger and the Scott Trust that it should be published freely online, with no subscription or paywall. ‘The money will come’, I said. ‘It’s about turning the paper into a global news brand’, I said.

They believed me.

It wasn’t all my fault.  The basic problem is that the internet isn’t there to support newspapers: the internet is the greatest machine for moving information about the world around that we have yet invented.

Unfortunately for The Guardian and its rivalst it does a remarkably good job of solving the problem that newspapers are supposed to deal with, and this has left them searching for something else to be.

That, along with:

websites without an income stream

decoupled advertising where most of the revenue goes to third parties like Google

an increasing reliance on zeroth draft history written by the people

has created a situation in which sticking ‘news’ on ‘paper’ no longer makes sense – the portmanteau product that we call a ‘newspaper’ apparently has no business model.

It’s the same in many other areas.

This is not really ‘creative destruction’ – it’s more ‘destruction of price[1]’. We no longer do some things. We no longer feel the need to pay for some things. Some things that were businesses are now marketing activity for bigger things.

Although we build structures around our acts of creativity, releasing creativity does not mean making money.

[13 Eliot plaque at Faber


Photographed by Leo Reynolds

Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike Licens


The belief that a significant number of individuals can make a living from creative activity seems, like limitless air travel and inconsequential sex, to have been an artefact of a small section of privileged western society during the latter half of the twentieth century.

Eliot worked in Lloyd’s Bank from 1917 to 1925, and then at Faber & Gwyer for forty years. He wrote the poems and plays and essays in the time remaining.

[14 Buzzfeed home page 14 Sept

http://www.buzzfeed.com/ ]

So can you build a business on top of the network? Probably. We see some interesting successes – in the mediasphere Buzzfeed, Vine and Matter are all doing well.

Will they have the impact of The Guardian or the New York Times or the Times of India? Well, they might, because the network economy creates new niches and new possibilities to be a superpredator, as we see with Facebook, Amazon and Google.

The BBC is looking to a world where it can reach 500m people a month, a significant growth from what the domestic service is capable of, and it will be relying on online services for a lot of that.

Plan B is to make Plan A work.
Creativity is more than a new app or service, it’s about the wider ecosystem, and that includes the legal and regulatory environment, financial systems, social norms and – of course –the available and anticipated technology.

Once you can make perfect copies of any digital object and transfer it to any device without effort, some of the things you built a business on stop being opportunities and start being inconveniences.

[15 Coase

By Ionel141 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

and 16 Schumpeter

[[File:Joseph Schumpeter ekonomialaria.jpg|thumb|Joseph Schumpeter ekonomialaria]]]

Reality is the stuff that doesn’t go away when you ignore it (Dennett), and Coase and Schumpeter will tell you that current models are going to find it hard to survive.

If you exist in a world where fast transmission of perfect digital copies means almost anything you create can be shared at effectively zero marginal cost with anyone who might be slightly interested in it, then you can either fight that world or work with it.

[17 Facebook

my screenshot


18 Facebook Mobile

my screenshot]

And technology companies aren’t immune from the pressure to change and adapt. The biggest business pivot in the last ten years has been Facebook going mobile. Beautifully executed and delivered, the company has changed everything internally to make that one simple switch because it appreciated that the underlying reality had changed.

Unfortunately many business are instead trying to twist their model of reality to serve their old model, with the ‘content industries’ being the clearest example. After all, for any business the easy way to stay profitable will always look like its finding ways to make money from doing the old stuff in the changed environment.

[19 Old Factory

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

And if you have to strangle the potential for new businesses in that changed environment, or waste the opportunities that a new technology like the Internet offers, that may be just fine. After all, it’s only potential whereas you have wages to pay and a career to preserve.

And using your profits to influence the environment in order to ensure the continued viability is only natural. Like Jessica Rabbit, corporations are not bad  – they are just drawn that way.


Clip from Roger Rabbit. In breach because illustrative. Then some commentary on the animation style and history of live/comic mixup. No longer in breach because criticism and review]

Right Rights?
[20 US Constitution

“Copyright Act of 1790 in Colombian Centinel” by Original uploader was SasiSasi at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Shizhao using CommonsHelper.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Copyright_Act_of_1790_in_Colombian_Centinel.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Copyright_Act_of_1790_in_Colombian_Centinel.jpg]

The continuing conflict over ‘intellectual property’ is the clearest example of the tensions between new and old models, perhaps because the US model of copyright as a way of securing the economic value of a work can easily be construed as part of the broader regulatory support for business models rather than an issue around creativity, and so it can be expected to be used as a tool by incumbents to preserve their profits.

Unfortunately it’s no longer just an issue between businesses – one of the side effects of widespread access to the Internet and widespread use of devices that allow us to exist in the liminal space between online and offline is that we all have an interest in the operation of copyright law.

That’s why the collateral damage being done to the network has finally got serious attention from ordinary people, like the million or so who have expressed their concern over the FCC’s proposed new approach to net neutrality.

Change is Always Possible
[21 Landscape. With sheep

my photograph]

Copyright, patents and trademarks, like all legal frameworks, resemble living organisms. They evolve under pressure from the external environment, like memes subject to natural selection. Some become extinct, others have a high mutation rate and speciate rapidly.

Generally we live in a period of punctuated equilibrium, but the emergence of the internet is the equivalent of the oxygen catastrophe 2.3bn years ago, when atmospheric oxygen killed off most of the earth’s membrane-bounded organic chemistry (‘life’).

Laws and legal frameworks have no fixed nature. Like the network, we made the laws and we can change them.  Nothing is always illegal, or even always compulsory.

[22 Capital

Amazon screen capture

and 23 Kapital


“Zentralbibliothek Zürich Das Kapital Marx 1867” by Zentralbibliothek Zürich – This document was created as part of the Zentralbibliothek Zürich project.Deutsch | English | +/−. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Zentralbibliothek_Z%C3%BCrich_Das_Kapital_Marx_1867.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Zentralbibliothek_Z%C3%BCrich_Das_Kapital_Marx_1867.jpg]

The approach to copyright taken by the content industries and seemingly endorsed by the Westminster government allows for the appropriation of creative value by the owners of creative capital, and will lead to the same sorts of inequality and unhappiness.

Piketty (and Marx) explain that capital always takes too much from the workers, so that the return on capital increases. But this will inevitably reduce the economy’s ability to sustain itself, as exploited workers cannot afford consumer goods. Or food. Or music, films, games or World of Warcraft subscriptions.

Revolt. Rinse. Repeat.

[24 Cory at dConstruct

my photo]

In his talk at dConstruct last week Cory Doctorow talked about the Internet as an amazing space that could support the widest possible range of human activity, liberating us and enhancing our lives. And he pointed out that commercial interests, government action and sheer greed were in danger of destroying that potential and instead delivering us up to surveillance, monetization and control.

[25 Snowden as robot;

“Edward Snowden’s Surprise Appearance at TED” by Steve Jurvetson – Flickr: Edward Snowden’s Surprise Appearance at TED. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Edward_Snowden%27s_Surprise_Appearance_at_TED.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Edward_Snowden%27s_Surprise_Appearance_at_TED.jpg ]

We already know, from the documents made public by Edward Snowden, that this is happening.

[26a Plebgate still – courtesy Metropolitan Police]

We see, in the way the Metropolitan Police used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to access the phone records of Sun journalist Tom Newton Dunn, that this is already happening.

As Cory points out if you are an artist, a creative person, and your ways of making money rely on this sort of surveillance and control then you are doing it wrong. You are on the wrong side in the debate over the net’s future, and eventually you will be held to account for the choices you have made.

But if you are a corporation that owns or licenses copyrights and seeks to build a business from them then things are less clear cut.

Unlike the US Supreme Court I don’t believe that corporations are persons with free speech rights, but every business is made up of people, and you can debate these issues with them.
[27 the people

photograph from xxx, used with permission


I’ve spent the last thirty years advocating for open systems, open standards, open data and open knowledge.  I’ve shared platforms with people like Vint Cerf, Richard Stallman, Wendy Hall, Tim Berners-Lee, Gavin Starks, Jill Cousins and Laura James – and Cory, of course.

And I tell you now that I will always argue that the benefits that will come from openness, interoperability, sharing and liberal reuse are far far greater than those that could ever come from locking down the products of our creative expression. I look forward to the research you’re all going to do that will demonstrate this, building on such fine examples as Walt Disney’s free reuse of folk tales.

[28 Grimm

By scanned by NobbiP (scanned by NobbiP) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


29 Disney

“Two Princesses and a Queen” by Jennie Park mydisneyadventures – https://www.flickr.com/photos/11325321@N08/7846413740. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Two_Princesses_and_a_Queen.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Two_Princesses_and_a_Queen.jpg]

There is a difference between letting artists earn a fair reward for their work and allowing companies reasonable control of the use of their assets by others, a difference between exploiting the affordances of the Internet and locking down the network so that its generative capacity is choked off and it serves the interests of the surveillance state at the same time as shoring up the otherwise unviable business models of those who can afford the most effective lobbyists.

Careful exploration of copyright and new business models is vital; getting the business, regulatory and cultural infrastructure right matters enormously; figuring out how to address the issues surrounding digitisation, copyright, and innovation is a task that we should all be concerned with.

[30 Max Kickstarter page


If we get it wrong, we’ll have to answer to tomorrow’s artists – people like my film-maker son, Max who has just successfully raised £1000 on Kickstarter to make a film.

I’m sure none of us wants to end up like the Pardoner and the Summoner after they annoyed Geoffrey Chaucer, humiliated over the centuries.


[1] In my talk I referred to ‘destruction of value’ but of course value is much more than what you can ask someone to pay for something, and just because value shifts from financial to public value does not mean something bad has happened. Unless you need the money.