Where Do Good Ideas Come From?

March 5, 2012

Essay by Benjamin Brichta, the Network Architecture Lab, an experimental unit at the Columbia University GSAPP directed by Kazys Varnelis.


Mas issue ownership where do good ideas come from 01

Girl Talk performing in 2009 during Austin City Limits Music Festival. © Ashley Garmon.

The birthplace of the paperless studio, Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation is in the midst of transforming its digital identity (see: As part of this transformation, the school now requires all students to surrender a digital copy of their full body of work for archiving, packaging, and distribution in order to receive a diploma. And yet, student work frequently treads on the limits of copyright. Students’ renderings and videos have become vessels for the storage of pixelated people, background images, maps, and Grammy-winning soundtracks all freely brought in from Google, Flickr, and YouTube. Concerned by the impact of these questions, Kazys Varnelis, Director of the Network Architecture Lab, decided to assemble a panel discussion on the intellectual property implications of opening up students’ work to the cloud in an event held on February 5, 2012, entitled, “How do You Break the Law?”

Lebbeus Woods, the esteemed architect, artist, and theorist was first to present, recounting his experience filing suit against Universal Studios. Lebbeus claimed that the Interrogation Room in Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys was copied directly and without permission from his “Neomechanical Tower (Upper) Chamber.” The suit was settled out of court after the judge issued a preliminary injunction barring distribution of the film. This was a case of David defeating Goliath. To the average consumer of intellectual property, it seems that copyright law benefits corporate interests, like Apple and the RIAA, over smalltime content creators, artists, and musicians. It is in this context that Lebbeus places his own copyright battle. Of course, he wants his work to be seen, used, and shared but in his determination the studio’s use of his work was exploitative. This was not an artist or student appropriating words or images, but business people selling product. Perhaps it is worth noting that for all of Lebbeus’s interest in the architect as creator-genius, geniuses of the past (see Greek Temples and Palladio) tended to rely on appropriation and remix. The language of copyright law protects ownership but cannot determine the moral value of a secondary use. Judges determine that value and decide which cases are won or lost. Again and again, the night’s conversation returned to this moral issue. How is the secondary use judged?

Next up was Sean Dockray, the mastermind behind The Public School and the now-shuttered site AAAARG was at once an online forum, a school, an academic journal, digital archive, and peer-to-peer sharing service. Unlike other file sharing services that were set up to skirt copyright law or battle morally corrupt corporations, AAAARG was simply meant to facilitate the transfer of knowledge. The idea was that people who had access to academic material (like those associated with a university) would share it with those that did not (those outside universities or those in universities with smaller budgets). He began his talk by posing the question, “who has the right to start a library?” In the United States, libraries (the physical ones, with buildings and stacks) have been seen as a universal right, provided to the public with a mixture of public and private funding. As reproductive and communication technologies make possible a library that contains everything, is everywhere, and exists for everyone, the conversation about libraries is shifting away from universal rights to ownership rights and from access to piracy. Facilitated by encoded file-types, the transfer and acquisition of knowledge is not necessarily about the possession of a physical object but about a subscription to a service-based model. This turns libraries into businesses and server farms into bank vaults. So again, we are left with a moral question: should access to knowledge be a universal right?

If Sean was coy in his assertion that “fair use” copying is a universal right, Amy Adler, a lawyer and professor at NYU Law, was more direct. Her talk was entitled “In Praise of Copying.” Fair use, she said, is the last bastion of the first amendment before copyright takes over the process of information sharing. Adler is in the midst of a battle of her own. She is representing Richard Prince—an American painter and photographer—in perhaps the art world’s most closely watched copyright case. Prince appropriates others’ images in what he calls a “rephotograph,” and was sued for copyright infringement by a documentary photographer; he is now appealing.

The case will come down to the judge’s interpretation of “fair use,” language that provides a small passage into the fortress of intellectual property. Was the secondary use “transformative?” Did the translation from first use to second use add value? If so, Prince was within his legal right to use the work and claim fair use. These, of course, are complicated questions to answer and demand the judge understand not only Prince’s work and his impetus to create it, but the original work and its place in our culture as well. Perversely, Prince is not making it easy on himself; when asked under oath about the meaning of his work, he maintained that it had no meaning and that he derived no meaning from the original images, either. This Warholian response, unfortunately, sank his case and now threatens his appeal. Also claimed as a defendant in the suit was Gagosian Gallery and Lawrence Gagosian, its owner. If someone here has more to lose than the artists, it is the galleries that support them. If galleries and their owners are responsible for the legal and moral implications of the work held in their possession, we could see the art world follow the same path as the music industry; namely, a loss in the value of the work of art and a movement to take the flow of goods underground. Similarly, if galleries are held accountable, universities that host libraries of student work might be as well.

In many ways, Prince’s work and creative process anticipated today’s remix culture. I always begin my creative process with a quick Google image search and it seems there are flashes of understanding on the part of the federal government and those holding intellectual property that stealing is, and indeed has always been, intimately intertwined with the creative process. Moreover, there are peculiar breaches in the logic of the system that hint at its flaws. For example, Girl Talk, the DJ who has made a career of mashing other people’s music together has yet to be prosecuted. Similarly, the music streaming service Grooveshark does not possess licenses for all of its content, making some question why it hasn’t received the wrath of the Department of Justice.

Geeta Dayal, music critic and journalist, focused on technology’s roll in music creation and piracy. She began her talk at the end of the nineteenth century with the invention of magnetic tape—its physical properties determining how it was used and edited. She then moved on to the computer, the synthesizer, the studio, the turntable, the digital sampler, the laptop, YouTube, and mobile apps. With each step, technology enabled people’s access and provided more opportunities for creative output. For Geeta, the mp3 is the culmination of this chronology, what she calls, “illegal use in its highest form.” The mp3 has imbedded within it all the intelligence that allows its legal and illegal transference although perhaps it is surpassed by the lossless FLAC file that contains a bit perfect copy of the original. Interestingly, this intelligence has lead to a certain way of talking about its physical properties. The two clearest examples are streaming music and cloud storage. These watery phrases conjure a tap that can be turned on or off at will.

Architects, by and large, are not equipped with the technical or theoretical skills required to manage collaboration (the sharing of ideas) at the scale of complexity needed to build big buildings. How do we acknowledge authorship in an age where appropriation is normal? Design ideas are now produced across industries, time zones, and software platforms. Liability, too, is now split along those lines. But who owns the idea? Where did it come from? Project delivery methods like IPD (Integrated Project Delivery) stress a non-authorial approach to collaboration but it is only suited for certain types of project, in certain places, and with certain assumed profit margins. In the future, architects might need to choose whether they protect knowledge and information or ownership of ideas.

Lebbeus ended the conversation by speculating that we had reached the end of our obsession with remix culture. In our post-modern, post-structural, post-everything world, he said people will simply tire of reusing the barrage of images that make up our global culture and seek out novel forms of creative output. The panel disagreed. They all left the table and all but one skeptically signed Columbia’s Speaker Permission Agreement, a document that hopes “to make your presentation widely available and helpful to a broader audience” and requests “your non-exclusive and royalty-free permission.” This revolution, it appears, will not be televised.