Digital Authorship Graph

We’re building our content wrong and it’s time to fix it.

Authors, musicians, filmmakers, reporters (or at least the entities collecting the checks in their names) complain about their work being copied illegally. We force intentionally defective DRM regimes on the most innocent consumers (i.e., most of us). And yet the first thing you learn as an author is that “bad artists copy, great artists steal.”

Indeed, artists both copy and steal from each other all the time. Art is about 98% creatively recycled and 2% new. And that’s no discredit to the artist. That’s just how it works. That goes to the very definition of trope, genre, and communication that they must conscientiously build on what came before. If everything was new all the time, we wouldn’t understand or enjoy it one bit.

And yet our content creation and delivery regimes don’t ever seem to take this into account. They don’t make it easier to copy with attribution. They don’t make it easier to get permission or give proportional credit or flow money back to contributors when the money flows in. They force us to try to protect the raw bits of expression, when what we should really be protecting are those 2% new ideas (a lot) and the 98% creative remix (somewhat less) and let the bits run free, as they will anyway.

I’ve spent most of my career working on this problem indirectly. I wrote the procedural object code for Second Life, meant to make mashups of 3D objects easier. I helped convince parts of Microsoft to invest in what we called “parametric 3D video” (though the present result of that effort is only addressing one part of the problem space). I pitched and/or worked on even more ideas that haven’t gotten that far in this particular direction, alas. It’s too big a problem, and it requires more long-term vision to go it alone.

It’s time for others to help take on the challenge of building a graph that connects authors and artists along with those that remix them. The graph is the back-end of better content tools that make it easy to remix. The graph should easily be invoked in places like YouTube, 4chan, Fark, and It should be under the hood of iMovie, Blender and Photoshop.

In other words, it has to be open. And I think the best vehicle for this right now is Facebook’s push called Open Graph. Metadata already solves the instantaneous authorship problem — who created this page or entity. Now we just need a way of more easily including content from other people that also respects and preserves their authorship information in a trusted way. And once that graph is constructed, we can do things like:

1. automatic credits and attribution on any derivative work

2. automatic creative commons support to remove legal uncertainty from remixing

3. automatic flow of micropayments (partial credit automatically computed) when a derivative work receives some compensation. No general expectation of front-end payment or negotiation for simply including something that might never make money.

If there’s a way to support artists in a world where copying is both inevitable and acceptable, this, I believe, is it. And if there’s any incentive for the engineering and business work that is required to pull this off, it’s right there inside #3.

Now, if you have a few minutes, watch these videos (and kindly donate to their author for his excellent work..)

Everything is a Remix from Kirby Ferguson on Vimeo.

Everything is a Remix Part 2 from Kirby Ferguson on Vimeo.

Then, if you have a few more minutes, read my old manifesto against DRM and for a new model of protecting/fostering authorship that takes those two videos into account, which is the first time I publicly talked about these ideas.