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Control of creativity? Fashion's secret

Film and music industries might heed the wisdom

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The fashion world understands that creativity is a collaborative and community affair. It's far too big, robust, and evolving for any one player to "own" as a legal entitlement. Long lineages of couturiers from Balenciaga to Ungaro, Chanel to Lagerfield, and Gucci to Tom Ford have shown that designers necessarily must learn, adopt, and adapt from those who have blazed previous trails. If one were to deconstruct their work, an evolutionary chain of distinct themes, references, design nuances, and outright appropriations could be discerned.

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Occasionally someone may protest a "rip-off" and get murmurs of sympathy. And the counterfeiting of brand-name products is rightly condemned as theft. However, in general, creative derivation is an accepted premise of fashion. Indeed, the industry's growth and prosperity have been built upon the famous maxim of Isaac Newton, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."

Is it possible that the fashion industry, long patronized as a realm of the ephemeral and insubstantial, is the real bellwether for future ideas of "ownership" of creative content?

Through fashion we have a ringside seat on the ecology of creativity in a world of networked communication. Ideas arise, evolve through collaboration, gain currency through exposure, mutate in new directions, and diffuse through imitation. The constant borrowing, repurposing, and transformation of prior work are as integral to creativity in music and film as they are to fashion.

Although the music and film industries acknowledge the cultural commons as a source of inspiration, they then turn around and try to claim exclusive ownership of the results. The Disney Company, for example, has "taken private" dozens of folk stories and literary classics while contributing nothing to the public domain. Such one-way privatization of our culture makes it difficult for new creators to build from works that were themselves derivative at an earlier point.

Creativity can endure only so much private control before it careens into a downward spiral of sterile involution. If it is to be fresh, passionate, and transformative, creativity must have the room to breathe and grow, "unfettered and alive."

The legendary designer Coco Chanel understood this reality. She once said, "Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only; fashion is something in the air. It's the wind that blows in the new fashion; you feel it coming, you smell it ... in the sky, in the street; fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening."

The fashion world recognizes that creativity cannot be bridled and controlled and that obsessive quests to do so will only diminish its vitality. Other content industries would do well to heed this wisdom.

David Bollier and Laurie Racine are senior fellows at the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication.