The history of Disney’s attitude towards intellectual property is a case of humor and irony, and more than a little hypocrisy. At the beginning of Disney’s history, intellectual property rights were far more limited than they are now. And this was exploited heavily, as old fairy tales were reinterpreted in a more family-friendly way and ended up making Walt Disney a fair amount of money. It is easy to forget these origins now when Disney is a massive owner of intellectual property and wants to make sure that no one can do to its property what Walt Disney and early animators did in reinterpreting existing stories. It is hard to remember where we once were when we become the holders of great intellectual property, and this leads us to be unjust to those who are not as far along in the process as we are. And while Disney’s case is particularly fierce, this is not an unusual issue.
Let us look at the Disney problem of creativity and intellectual property in a more familiar but also smaller form. Let us examine the Beatles. The Beatles began their career as very young musicians who were fascinated to learn individual chords and who were immensely fond of the R&B and early rock music that was coming out of America that was as of yet unfamiliar to many in England. Their time in Liverpool and especially their time in Hamburg allowed them to play covers (and some originals) over and over again, and even their early albums were quite full of cover versions of songs that they admired and appreciated. It was through the practice and performance of thee covers that first John Lennon and Paul McCartney and then George Harrison and to a lesser extent Ringo Starr were able to demonstrate creativity. By the time that the band was recording in the mid-1960’s and beyond, the cover songs largely vanish and increasing ambition, including suites of songs blending together as well as concept albums, demonstrate increasing originality that would in turn inspire other people.
This is not an uncommon thing. We hone our craft first by imitation, by learning the mechanics of something without originality, trying to work through the solutions that other people have come to before. Once we work through these things we then come to better understand how things work and then, sometimes through intuition, come to understand what works and then eventually come to work through problems of increasing originality, the extent of which is dependent on a variety of factors. That said, it does seem rather frustrating to many people that genuine talent and expertise comes from mastering the known and developing a sense of understanding what is unknown. This is what separates mastery from a celebration of the outsider and amateur, who does things that experts do because of a lack of expertise in how things should work, which is what happens when we try to short-circuit the process of developing expertise while we are trying to demonstrate creativity.
It is worthwhile to note that this sort of thing applies across all kinds of art. Art, it should be understood, is something that requires the skill and expertise, as well as the creativity, of the people involved. There are many ways that artistic problems manifest themselves. We can attempt to solve problems in the external world, for example, customer requirements, or the desire to capture verisimilitude. We can attempt to solve problems in the interior world, bringing what is inside of us to the understanding of others, by no means an easy task. We can work in a variety of mediums. We work with a variety of goals in mind, with a different degree of permanence to our solutions. And if we have done what we do well, we will leave behind something that we can feel proud about, something that we can answer for without feeling a sense of shame, and something that resonates with other people as well. These are hard to accomplish in their entirety, but they demonstrate what happens when we have become a master at something. It is a great shame that this mastery can be thwarted by intellectual property concerns, as people forget what got them to where they are.