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My latest Locus column takes the form of a thought-experiment in which I try to make sense of how we treat creative work on behalf of a notional Martian:

It’s about this time that the Martian notices our distinctly contradictory relationship with copying. On the one hand, copying is inextricably tied up with this idea of ‘‘human progress’’ (itself the basis for venerating creativity). We copy the words invented by our ancestors. We copy the storytelling forms passed down to us by our literary forebears. Painters copy each others’ conventions and brushstrokes (not to mention mechanical techniques from gesso to frame-stretching). Filmmakers copy like crazy: everything from extreme wide shots to dollying in and out are techniques that were invented in living memory.

That matters, O Martian. Because generally, we frown less upon a copy when it builds on the work of someone long dead – especially when that person is anonymous. Not knowing which ingenious proto-linguist thought up the idea of a pronoun, we couldn’t possibly credit that part of speech to her. At a certain point, we stop treating each others’ creations and special pseudo-property (with all the legal and normative implications imposed by such a respect, from attribution to permission) and we start treating it as infrastructure – belonging to no one and everyone.

Infrastructure matters. Infrastructure forms the links of the chain from which we swing – someone invents language, someone invents storytelling, someone invents writing, someone invents type, someone invents publishing, someone invents trade publishing, someone invents science fiction, someone invents first contact stories, someone invents magazine columns, and then, I create this article you’re reading now. If I had to invent my own language and alphabet and commercial publishing industry before you I could claim to have created anything, I’d never get anything done, and all the magazines would be full of blank pages because all the writers would be so busy inventing their own private creative words that the articles wouldn’t get written.

Cory Doctorow: Explaining Creativity to a Martian

(Image: Martian Face 2, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from 33942000@N00’s photostream)