"Stop copying me." It's something we've all heard before. Whether it's two siblings arguing in the backseat, or two adult-children arguing on social media, humans have a visceral aversion to being copied. In a world hyper-focused on creativity and novelty, credit and attribution, the last thing anyone wants is to be copied. But then how do we ever learn anything?
Herein lies the first paradox: from babies to concert musicians, from mathletes to decathletes, humans are hard-wired to observe and mimic. Copying shouldn't be eschewed; it should be welcomed as a sign of learning. We all need to try something that's been done before, well in advance of experimenting with the new. Experimentation is one of nine principles described in Ultralearning by Scott Young. "Ultralearning" is s strategy for acquiring skills and knowledge that is both self-directed and intense. In Ultralearning, Young describes his own journey to teach himself the 4-year MIT computer science curriculum in just 12-months, among other impressive pedagogical feats. He followed a well-worn path to learn the principles of computer science. Young shares other stories how many artists experiment before landing on their own unique style. They experiment ruthlessly for long periods of time, shifting styles like the seasons.
Seeing how others have done the same before you provides an advantageous start. This ground is well-trodden so several examples exist to show you how to proceed. But the value of following others rapidly declines as experience and expertise grow. Fewer and fewer people will be steps in front of you, so you need to rapidly experiment in order to find the best new way. But like any good experiment, it doesn't need to be successful to be of value. We learn just as much, sometimes more, from failed experiements as we do from successful ones. Regardless of your field, variation and aggressive experimentation lead to learning and mastery.
So what then of copycats? Herein lies the second paradox: the lines between a copy, a derivative, or a unique work soon won't matter. As I've written about before, a major conversation in Web3 is around ownership, rights, and permissions. Ownership of digital artifacts like works of art is recorded and executed on the blockchain. Sometimes ownership comes with no permissions for use beyond those you'd have for physically owning a print. But sometimes, ownership comes with commercial rights. This shift in mindset, as well as practice, is part of what catapulted the BAYC 10K PFP project into stratospheric value. By owning a derivative of ape #6808, I can commercialize or make further derivatives, as I did with "The Ape". Finally, some works are sold with CC0 licenses, in which the creator,
places [the work] as completely as possible in the public domain, so that others may freely build upon, enhance and reuse the works for any purposes without restriction under copyright or database law.
Why would anyone ever waive future rights to something they created? Because of network effects. As I wrote in The Place of Creative Genius, networks of people are connected by personal relationships, and these networks create scenius, culture, and creativity. But just as the lone genius was never alone, the lone idea is never disconnected from other ideas. When applied to ideas, network effects allow new connections between old ideas, breaking and re-making them in different combinations. Creativity is a combinatorial act. Or, as Steve Jobs quipped, “creativity is just connecting things”.
But ideas cannot exist in a vacuum. A network of ideas needs a network of people to survive. An idea needs to be relateable, memorable, and transferrable. It is a discrete packet of information travelling across culture that will either survive or silently disappear. Like a meme. The ideas we discuss in our current cultural zeitgeist are only those that have survived.
Copying is how an idea continues to thrive. Keeping an idea to yourself, restricting access behind paywalls, or filing DMCA 'Notice and Takedowns' prevents the idea from traveling as far as it otherwise might. If an immutable record of an idea could be written in a not-too-distant future, then what begins to matter more is the quality and relevance of it. So the next time I have a really good idea, go ahead and copy me.