u_topn picture
rub_dc picture
Atlantic Unbound Sidebar

Return to the first page of this article.


More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.


Join the conversation in the Technology & Digital Culture conference of Post & Riposte.




From The Atlantic:

"Who Will Own Your Next Good Idea?," by Charles C. Mann (September 1998)
Some corporations want to lock up copyright even tighter. Some naive intellectuals want to abandon copyright altogether. Where is a "do-nothing" Congress now that we need one?

From Atlantic Unbound:

Roundtable: "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Copyright?" (September 1998)
What is at stake in the battle over intellectual property in the information age? Charles C. Mann, John Perry Barlow, Lawrence Lessig, and Mark Stefik join in a special Atlantic Unbound roundtable discussion.

Exquisite Source -- Page Two (of two)


An expanded view of open source sheds new light on one of twentieth-century art's signature techniques: quotation, or, in the digital context, sampling. Quotation is a kind of "open-sourcing" of artistic material. Picasso started by quoting freely from earlier styles (and wound up quoting freely from himself). Copyright was never at issue in Picasso's case -- only originality, its unregulated counterpart. Today, of course, the purview of quotation has expanded enormously. Sampling almost anyone and anything is just a simple cut-and-paste operation. From one point of view this is liberating. From another it is theft. And neatly separating these two aspects of the same process may be well beyond our powers while we are in the midst of it.

Consider the case of John Myatt, described last month in The New York Times Magazine as being part of an art-forgery scam so profound that it was said to have "altered art history." Myatt didn't grow ever more expert in copying one painter, as have forgers before him; he copied many twentieth-century artists, and (in his own opinion) not very adeptly: "There was a negligence to everything I did," he confessed. Your favorite Giacometti could easily be yet another Myatt, and certainly would be if it had any K-Y Jelly slopped on the canvas (the use of fast-drying K-Y being one of Myatt's techniques for increasing his output). Astonishingly, the K-Y almost never tipped off the experts, many of whom now despair of getting the canon right again, separating the real Giacomettis, Braques, and Chagalls from the jellied frauds. But other experts admit that Myatt was doing just what a modern artist should: quoting like crazy and making us think about what artistic originality amounts to in the first place. This is exactly the kind of thing the Ars Electronica jurors like to ponder. Perhaps next year, if he can get online, Myatt will be rewarded with a Golden Nica, making him a hero of the open source underground: the Linus Torvalds of the dark side.

Make no mistake -- there is such a thing as an open source underground, where the distinctions between literature and software, not to mention sharing and stealing, get really and truly fouled. This underground is personified by the legendary figure of Luther Blissett -- "Luther Blissett" being (according to a site called the "Luther Blissett Project: a mythopoetic on-line guide") "a multi-use name that can be adopted by anyone and is used every day and every night in the rest of Europe and the world." When Blissett hijacked a bus in Rome -- "with drums, confetti, drinks and ghetto blasters tuned in to Radio Blissett" -- the hijackers "bought only one ticket, because they all shared the same open identity, that of Luther Blissett." Blissett would just as soon crack Web sites as hijack buses. This past spring he paid a surprise visit to hell.com (an invitation-only portal to select art sites), downloaded all its files, and copied them to a free site. As he put it: "What is a computer if not something that benefits by the free flow of information?"

Blissett is also an open source novelist. Inspired by the papal encyclical Ut Unum Sint ("That all may be one"), he wrote A Survivor From the XVIth Century: Q (not yet in English), announcing that the process of composition requires "no boss, no mysterious scholar," only the contribution of many Blissetts, all of whom would be credited separately if their names were not identical. "Creative writing," Blissett declared, "is an utterly collective operation: concepts can't be anyone's property, the genius doesn't exist, there's just a Great Recombination." Clearly Blissett's idea of recombination owes more than a little to a talent for real and virtual safe cracking. His slogans might be: "Release early, release often -- or we'll do it for you!" and "Open source: by any means necessary!"

But we don't need Blissett to point out that open source practices of one sort or another are more common than might be supposed. There are signs, for example, that computer-game characters are beginning to offer themselves up to the great recombination. Phil Hood, an analyst at the Alliance for Converging Technologies, writes that computer games are "slowly moving to a model in which users and programmers can add characters and actions to existing proprietary games." In his view, game-makers will find it makes good business sense to collaborate with users "to extend, enhance and enlarge a brand." Hood explains that "By acknowledging fans and customers as 'co-owners,' companies open up new opportunities to tap the creative powers of their fan base." Those powers are, of course, the engine of open source. The New York Times recently reported on a game in which "the real action happens in edit mode, where you can customize and choreograph every facet of a fighting character's movement." And there have been reports of players fashioning high-powered characters for existing games, then auctioning them off on eBay.

Perhaps some comparable process will be coming to literature. Fictional characters have long been reused by writers -- think of how many authors have helped themselves to Sherlock Holmes, or how Shakespeare drew on a potpourri of characters as it suited him -- but characters may soon be snatched from author's galleys. Not plots, not whole books, but simply characters: literary action figures drafted into interaction with other such figures. It's relevant that the Nabokov estate has recently settled with Pia Pera, an Italian writer who has rewritten Lolita from Lolita's point of view, while the copyright to the original novel remains in effect. If this deal had followed open source protocol, the character of Lolita would be henceforth available for rewriting by any willing writer. One day, she might encounter Hamlet.

We think of open source as arising on the cutting edge of digital technology -- certainly Linux and, say, Apache, are inconceivable without an Internet. And yet the dream of a vast collaborative and communal enterprise is primal, whether expressed in the dictum that "Poetry must be made by all and not by one," or in recent allusions to an electronic noosphere, a region of ideas that encircles and engages us. Versions of the dream are as likely to turn up in the creation of comics as in the dissemination of scientific information.

Art Spiegelman, for example, based his last book -- The Narrative Corpse: A Chain-Story by 69 Artists! (1995) -- on the idea of the exquisite corpse, with each artist forwarding his contribution to the story line to the next cartoonist in the chain. And, this past June, NIH director Dr. Harold E. Varmus proposed to put all scientific research on what is effectively an open source footing. Under Varmus's plan, which is still being debated, researchers would skip mediation by scientific journals and upload their results directly to the Internet, to be freely examined by anyone. This system would strongly promote the collaborative side of science, upsetting researchers wed to the proprietary approach. According to The New York Times, however, many concede an open source revolution in research is "just a question of when and how."

The conjunction of old dream and new media gives open source redoubled force. Its popularity, and its presence in many fields of intellectual endeavor, make it tempting to look back on the production of cultural goods in the twentieth century as a halting march toward some grand collaborative consummation. Of course, the attractions of this sort of open source utopianism haven't been countered, as yet, with anything like open source realism. Hence the theorists of open source theology, open source politics, and open source business plans. The truth is, we don't know how far the open source model can go. The Golden Nica awarded to Linux reminds us it can go as far as art.


Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Harvey Blume, a writer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a frequent contributor to Atlantic Unbound.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Cover Atlantic Unbound The Atlantic Monthly Post & Riposte Atlantic Store Search