You Can't Get There from Here II - thoughts on intellectual property

Last post I outlined why I like the word cooperation rather than collaboration.   In this project we six composers are coming together to create something that is truly the result of our collective efforts.  We now have a date for the performance during the Sound festival.

Saturday, October 24, 1:00pm in Arts Centre Theatre in Aberdeen. 

This project has brought back to my mind the crudeness of the idea of intellectual property.   I don’t wish to rail against the idea per se – I generally think it is good of course that people are recognised for the things they accomplish – yet I always feel slightly uncomfortable with stating unequivocally that a bit of creative work is “mine”.  As an instrumental composer, for instance, I rely on the will and skill of often numerous other people to realise a score I have made.  Beyond that, the score I made was enabled by “my” abilities, which are only mine in the sense that I was born with a certain way of thinking, am fortunate enough to have been brought up in an environment that encouraged creative pursuit, was able to pursue higher education in music, and have been lucky enough to meet good people who have pointed me in the right direction, etc.  To claim something that is so dependent upon luck and happenstance as “mine” feels, well, to use the same adjective again, crude.   The entire question of possession is not one that I find interesting to pose.

Turning to words, their origins, and their explicit and inner meanings, provides insight.  Language too often takes a back seat in attempts to divine “the real”, so it is important to look back on it, to understand that thinking about words is thinking about thinking.   Summing up, property has two areas of meaning in modern English, one extrinsic and one intrinsic.   The first is “acquired”, and fluctuates wildly; this is the second order of the word, including the idea of ownership in a capitalistic sense.  This is what we mean when we say, “that is my property”, or, grotesquely, “he or she is my property”.  Its fluctuation can be best seen in things that last: land, buildings, art, etc., and it is in these that we see the how weak and ephemeral the idea really is.  One may own property, say, on the northwest coast of Scotland, but that ownership, the idea that the land is one’s property, is a purely human construct, and will disappear with the owner.  It is extrinsic to the land itself, even if it may have a profound effect on that land.  This is true of any owned extrinsic object, and it is interesting to note that my much beloved states that this use of the word is rarely seen before the 17th century, and never before the early 14th.   The other use of the word, to use the example of NW Scotland again, may refer to things like peat bogs or glacial troughs.  These properties are intrinsic – the belong to the land, the were not acquired, and they will still be around when we are gone so long as those who claim to own it, in the constructed sense of property, don’t wreck it. 

I believe most would see this way of thinking is mere idealistic puffery with no real-world application; after all, I’m not exactly letting people wander in off the streets to carry off my possessions.   But I think what I’m driving at here is not the eradication of an idea altogether, but rather a subtle re-examination of that idea.  What if, instead of the idea of possessing property (in its extrinsic sense), we shifted towards an idea like proper stewardship? 

I’ve been re-reading Milan Kundara’s Immortality (1988).  One of the sub-themes of the book is that modernity has dissolved our understanding of our immediate world, and furthermore that Goethe was at the crossroads between the enlightened understanding of our surroundings and the perpetually befuddling, endlessly entangled, mess of modernity that quickly emerged through the 19th and 20th century, and largely defines our interaction with the world now.   In his example, the book’s protagonist is frustrated by an elevator that jerks around wildly as if it were infected with St Vitus Dance, reminding her that she’s no control over her technological environment.   There is an example that I overuse because it is so very apt:  I have no clue what is going on behind these words emerging on my screen as I type.  It has something to do with electricity, a multiplicity of material resources, and exceptionally clever design, but that’s about the end of my understanding.   I am uncomfortable with the idea that I own this computer because, even though in the rules of capitalism, it is my property, I’ve no idea of its properties.   I have reached a kind of philosophical truce with these unfathomable tools of creativity, which is that, despite my use of them as tools, the content of my work emerges from an intellectual sphere that does not depend on them.  That is to say, if I had to, I could scribble all this music out with something I do understand quite well: manual writing utensils and paper.   I am slightly worried that this may be a fantasy.  But it remains, and is very strongly related to my contention that, even though some tasks are made easier by digital technology, it does not mean it is always creatively beneficial to use that technology.  For instance, I have become aware of sophisticated software tools that transcribe music.  Yet surely, the point of an individual undertaking a transcription of some kind of musical performance is not limited to the end result: a transcription of a musical performance.   Similarly, there are plenty of websites that will create a precompositional matrix of transpositions for you; just plug in the row, and there you go.   Yet I personally have not found a better way to train myself to see the inherent structures of a set of intervals than to construct a precompositional matrix myself, and I would not give such a task over to a machine. 

The relationship to technology is one of the interesting aspects of this project.  It is very much enabled by the internet; we send pdfs, midi files, xml files, mp3s, etc, etc to each other via a shared online folder.  At any given point I can look back over the development of the music I’m working on by dipping into that folder.  This to me is a use of communication technology that enhances the process of creativity rather than deadening it by streamlining essential cognitive tasks.   These threads of musical fragments have become such a fascinating place for me to explore those intrinsic intellectual properties of individual composers.  Some of these composer colleagues I know quite well, and it is gratifying to see and truly recognise their indelible marks on a musical discourse. 

In October, the interest for me will lie in what intellectual properties will exist in the performance, and how those properties relate to the individual intellects involved, as well as the synergistic effect of them coming together.  What’s “mine” in all of this, what accolade or merit badge I may gain from claiming my influence, is a dull and fatuous concern.