As We Now Think

Reflections, commentary and analysis from Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University.

The Legacy of Steve Jobs: remix revisited

By Kimberly Elms

The recent release of the iPhone5 and the anniversary of Steve Jobs’ death remind me that the legacy of Jobs remains alive and well, both at Apple and in the way Americans think about innovation.

While we celebrate the originality of the new iPhone, we should well recall that many years ago Steve Jobs and engineers from Apple adapted the graphical interface and mouse they saw on a Xerox prototype. These features became the backbone of the Macintosh family of computers — and even today the mouse and graphical-user-interface are central to the Mac experience.

In life, Steve Jobs was sometimes boastful about Apple’s history of copying, but he harbored deep grudges against those who dared to copy Apple. With the recent disposition of the Apple-Samsung patent infringement lawsuit, it appears the legal system agrees with Steve. However, Steve Jobs and Apple owe a great deal to the people and institutions that make up the national innovation system and the seemingly ruthless way they are seeking to crush competitors is just plain bad for creativity and innovation.

In the world of art and production, a remix is the combination or editing of existing materials to make something new. An invention or innovation that is completely novel is becoming an increasingly rare occurrence. Everything we make, from music to a smart phone is a remix of other creations or a repurposing of existing material. This is not a new development. Anthropologists tell us this is how culture evolves; ideas, behaviors and skills are copied, transformed, and combined and the dominant ideas of a time are the things that spread the most.

So, copy, transform and combine. It’s innate to us, how we live, and how we create. However, our modern system of law and innovation doesn’t take into account the derivative nature of creativity. Instead, ideas are regarded as property, as unique and original lots with distinct boundaries. This would be well and good, except ideas are not tidy commodities. Ideas are layered, interwoven and tangled with the ideas that preceded them and because of this, they are in conflict with the systems we use to regulate them.

In the United States, the introduction of copyrights and patents was intended to address this imbalance and aimed to encourage the creation and proliferation of new ideas by providing a limited period of exclusivity to the inventor in which to cover their investment and earn a profit. After that, their work entered the public domain, where it could spread far and wide and be freely built upon. The goal was to create a robust public domain, an affordable body of ideas, products, arts and entertainment available to all.

Over time, the power of the market has transformed this principle beyond recognition. Influential thinkers proposed that ideas are a form of property, and this conviction would eventually yield a new term: intellectual property. This was a concept that would multiply wildly, thanks in part to a quirk of human psychology known as loss aversion. Simply put, we hate losing what we’ve got.

People tend to place a much higher value on losses than on gains; therefore, the gains from copying the work of others don’t make an impression on an individual. However, when a person sees their ideas being copied, it is perceived only as a loss to the individual and they become protective or territorial. When we copy we justify it. When others copy we vilify it. Most of us, including Steve Jobs, have no problem with copying as long as we’re the ones doing it.

So with a blind eye toward our own mimicry, and propelled by faith in markets and ownership, intellectual property has swelled beyond its original scope with broader interpretations of existing laws, new legislation, new realms of coverage and alluring rewards. The belief in intellectual property has grown so dominant it has pushed the original intent of copyrights and patents out of the public consciousness.

The copyright act of 1790 is entitled “an Act for the encouragement of learning,” and the Patent Act is “to promote the progress of useful Arts.” The exclusive rights these acts introduced were a compromise for a greater purpose. The intent was to better the lives of everyone by incentivizing creativity and producing a rich public domain, a shared pool of knowledge that was open to all. Over time, exclusive rights became the focus, so they were strengthened and expanded. The result hasn¹t been more progress or more learning, it’s been more squabbling and more abuse.

The boundary blurriness of design and utility patents has turned the personal technology industry into one giant turf war. When a jury concluded that Samsung stole the innovative technology used by Apple to create its revolutionary iPhone and iPad and awarded Apple Inc. $1billion, it sent a warning to other companies manufacturing similar devices. Not only will this lead to fewer consumer choices and higher prices on products, but also could have negative influence on the national innovation system itself. Inventors and creators may be so afraid of falling into similar scorched-earth litigation, the ultimate effect of An Apple Scorned could be squelching the improvements and innovations that are borne out of our time-honored method of creativity: copying.

Creation requires influence. Everything we make is a remix of existing ideas, and just as Sir Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen farther it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” which is exactly what he was doing when he adapted that saying from Bernard de Chartres.

Kimberly Elms is a PhD student in ASU’s Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology program. 

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This entry was posted on October 8, 2012 by in Technology Policy and tagged , , .
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