Kirby Ferguson: Is Everything A Remix? Filmmaker Kirby Ferguson says nothing is original and that our most celebrated creators steal ideas — and transform them into something new.
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Is Everything A Remix?

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Is Everything A Remix?

Is Everything A Remix?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And today on the show, what's original? Is there anything that can, like - we could really say is totally original?

KIRBY FERGUSON: The Big Bang.

RAZ: (Laughter).

FERGUSON: As far as we know, the Big Bang is original.

RAZ: And everything else after that's...

FERGUSON: Everything else, yeah...

RAZ: ...I guess, sort of, you know, derivative.

FERGUSON: Yes.

RAZ: This is Kirby Ferguson. He's a filmmaker. And he made a series of films called "Everything Is A Remix" because, as Kirby explains in those films, every painting, every song, every idea comes from somewhere else. And the basic element of creativity comes from remixing.

FERGUSON: All of our works emerge out of our influences, out of building, you know, upon the works and with the works of other people.

RAZ: Like, for example, Bob Dylan. Here's Kirby from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

FERGUSON: All right. Let's head back to 1964, and let's hear where some of Dylan's early songs came from. Going to do some side-by-side comparisons here. All right. This first song you're going to hear is "Nottamun Town." It's your traditional folk tune. After that you'll, hear Dylan's "Masters Of War."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOTTAMUN TOWN")

JEAN RITCHIE: (Singing) In Nottamun Town, not a soul would look up. Not a soul would look up. Not a soul would look down.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MASTERS OF WAR")

BOB DYLAN: (Singing) Come you masters of war, you that build the big guns, you that build the death planes, you that build all the bombs...

FERGUSON: So that's the same basic melody and overall structure. This next one is "The Patriot Game" by Dominic Behan. Alongside that, you're going to hear "With God On Our Side" by Dylan.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE PATRIOT GAME")

DOMINIC BEHAN: (Singing) Come all you young rebels and list while I sing, for love of one's land is a terrible thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WITH GOD ON OUR SIDE")

DYLAN: (Singing) Oh, my name, it ain't nothing. My age, it means less. The country I come from is called the Midwest...

FERGUSON: OK. Now, there's a lot of these. It's been estimated that two-thirds of the melodies Dylan used in his early songs were borrowed.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WITH GOD ON OUR SIDE")

DYLAN: (Singing) The laws to abide...

RAZ: So I'm hearing all these Bob Dylan things, right? And like, it's hard for me to say because we're talking about Bob Dylan...

FERGUSON: Yeah.

RAZ: ...But he stole all this stuff...

FERGUSON: (Laughter).

RAZ: ...Like if this happened today with Twitter, like, within seconds after the release of this record...

FERGUSON: It's true.

RAZ: ...Like, he'd be hammered.

FERGUSON: He would be. Yeah. I mean, it was a different era. He was a folk musician. And the idea back then was not that you came up with original songs. The idea was you took the songs that came before you and you did new things with them.

You know, you would write new lyrics to an existing melody or vice versa. You contributed to this body of folk music. That was the idea back then. So he wasn't unusual in what he was doing. He was doing what they do in folk music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPIRIT'S "TAURUS")

RAZ: And this happens all the time in all kinds of music. So take Led Zeppelin for example, who used to listen to another band called Spirit.

FERGUSON: And Spirit were - you know, they haven't really stood the test of time. But they were a reasonably well-known band in the '60s, and Zeppelin toured with them.

RAZ: Which could be why this song is not "Stairway To Heaven." It's called "Taurus," and it came out two years earlier. They basically ripped off Taurus.

FERGUSON: Yeah. They sound a lot like. And it does sound like the opening...

(SOUNDBITE OF LED ZEPPELIN'S "STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN")

FERGUSON: ...Of "Stairway To Heaven" is fairly difficult to distinguish from that segment of "Taurus."

(SOUNDBITE OF LED ZEPPELIN'S "STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN")

RAZ: Kirby, there has to be an original idea out there in the world.

FERGUSON: I don't really think so. Again, you can merge things together. And you can do that so much that it can be difficult to tell where something came from. You know, you can be layering and layering and layering until the end result is really unrecognizable.

But I think human beings aren't really capable of coming up with something from nowhere. Like, I think we just do not do that. We build out of materials. We use tools to make things. That's what we do. I don't think we summon things out of the blue.

RAZ: Even when we think of something as totally new, totally different, like "Star Wars"...

FERGUSON: George Lucas was a famous fan of Akira Kurosawa.

RAZ: He was the Japanese director who made all those samurai films in the '50s and '60s.

FERGUSON: Just the styling of the Jedi Knights is very samurai. And the look of Darth Vader - like, the look of his helmet - looks a lot like the armor of samurai warriors. And, you know, the famous cantina scene in the first "Star Wars"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STAR WARS: EPISODE IV - A NEW HOPE")

ALFIE CURTIS: (As Cornelius Evazan) I don't like you, either. You just watch yourself. We're wanted men.

FERGUSON: There's a bragging bad guy who ends up getting his arm chopped off.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STAR WARS: EPISODE IV - A NEW HOPE")

TOMMY ILSLEY: (As Ponda Baba, screaming)

FERGUSON: That resembles a scene from - I believe it's "Yojimbo."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "YOJIMBO")

JERRY FUJIO: (As Roku, screaming).

RAZ: But here's the thing - nobody thinks of "Star Wars" as derivative even though it clearly draws upon Kurosawa's work. So where's the line between copying and building on something that came before?

FERGUSON: I mean, to me, it's about how much you - how much mimicry you do, how much of the other artist you are taking. So if you take a large chunk of it, to me, that is where you're being derivative. You're being unoriginal. You know, I think you need to be transforming the things that you copy. You need to be recontextualizing them. It's about, where are you taking your copying to? And you need to be, you know, transforming and combining those elements in exciting ways.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

FERGUSON: Now, American copyright and patent laws run counter to this notion that we build on the work of others. Instead, these laws and laws around the world use the rather awkward analogy of property. Now, creative works may indeed be kind of like property, but it's property that we're all building on. And creations can only take root and grow once that ground has been prepared.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: So it's 2007.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVE JOBS: A widescreen iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone and a breakthrough Internet communications device.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Steve Jobs on stage at Macworld, and he introduces the iPhone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOBS: These are not three separate devices...

(APPLAUSE)

JOBS: ...This is one device.

RAZ: It's a complete breakthrough.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOBS: And we have invented a new technology called multi-touch. You can do multi-finger gestures on it.

(LAUGHTER)

JOBS: And, boy, have we patented it.

(LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)

RAZ: OK. So that was in 2007. But a year earlier, in 2006, an interface designer named Jeff Han gave a TED talk describing the very same technology. And Kirby Ferguson actually showed that footage of Jeff Han in his TED talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

FERGUSON: Let's hear what Jeff Han has to say about this newfangled technology.

JEFF HAN: Multi-touch sensing isn't anything - isn't completely new. I mean, people like Bill Buxton have been playing around with it in the '80s. The technology, you know, isn't the most exciting thing here right now, other than probably its newfound accessibility.

FERGUSON: So he's pretty frank about it not being new. So it's not multi-touch as a whole that's patented, it's the small parts of it that are. And it's in these small details where we can clearly see patent law contradicting its intent - to promote the progress of useful arts. And this idea that everything is a remix might sound like common sense until you're the one getting remixed.

RAZ: So remember that Picasso quote that Mark Ronson mentioned a bit earlier? Well, listen to Steve Jobs in 1996.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOBS: I mean, Picasso had a saying. He said, good artists copy, great artists steal. And we have, you know, always been shameless about stealing great ideas.

RAZ: OK. So fast-forward 14 years later - 2010 - when Google's Android phones started to challenge Apple's iPhone. Steve Jobs was quoted saying this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOBS: I'm going to destroy Android because it's a stolen product.

(LAUGHTER)

JOBS: I'm willing to go thermonuclear war on this.

(LAUGHTER)

JOBS: OK. So in other words, great artists steal, but not for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, you think about Steve Jobs, right? The idea that he, at one point in his career, you know, admits to sort of stealing great ideas and then later on in his career saying, I will crush...

FERGUSON: (Laughter) Yeah.

RAZ: ...Those people who steal - you know, steal my ideas...

FERGUSON: Yeah.

RAZ: ...Is crazy. I mean, the iPhone, which is an amazingly beautiful piece of technology...

FERGUSON: It is.

RAZ: ...Is all the result of the work of other people, right? Touchscreen technology...

FERGUSON: Yeah.

RAZ: ...In cellphones and GPS and the Internet...

FERGUSON: Yeah.

RAZ: ...I mean, like, without any of those things, that wouldn't exist.

FERGUSON: Yeah. Absolutely.

RAZ: So why wouldn't he acknowledge that?

FERGUSON: I think it's a very individualistic fantasy. It makes good stories. Talking about individuals, talking about Steve Jobs or Picasso or whoever, it's good stories. And I think that's what we are geared towards. We're geared towards stories that are about individuals because that's how we navigate this world, so we respond to stories that way. Whereas telling stories about society, about this incredibly complex mass of human activity, that is a much harder story to tell.

RAZ: So how do we start to think about all this in a completely different way?

FERGUSON: I think it is important to say what you took and from where. I think transparency about what you're doing is a big deal nowadays. And I think most people just want other people to know that, hey, like, that's my bit. You know, that little piece of that thing, that's mine. I did that. And I think just, you know, being more reflective, you know, when you're on the receiving end of getting copied. Just think for a moment about where that came from.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FERGUSON: You know, is it really yours? Because we definitely fool ourselves about where our ideas come from.

RAZ: Kirby Ferguson. He's a filmmaker. His movie on originality is called "Everything Is A Remix." Check out his whole talk at ted.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "4 CHORDS")

AXIS OF AWESOME: (Singing) Time to say goodbye. Veduto vissuto con te. Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind - I'm more than a bird, I'm more than a plane, I'm a bird-plane.

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