Our minds on media.

Musings on the effects of media on cognition.

Creative Communist: From Off-hand Remark to Virulent Meme in 3 Days

On January 5th of this year Bill Gates, in an interview with CNET made a statement that irked quite a few people. After the interviewer asked Mr. Gates if he thought intellectual property laws should be reformed, Mr. Gates replied,

“No, I’d say that of the world’s economies, there’s more that believe in intellectual property today than ever. There are fewer communists in the world today than there were. There are some new modern-day sort of communists who want to get rid of the incentive for musicians and moviemakers and software makers under various guises. They don’t think that those incentives should exist.”

###Day 1 The Shit-storm Begins Almost Immediately.

It’s important to note that a large movement in the software industry today, generally referred to as the Open Source movement, is made up of a loose confederation of programmers who believe that the key to making software more reliable and more flexible is to make sure that the source code be available to any who wants to modify it and that once modified, that same source code be made publicly available. This movement has found friends in other arenas, namely among artists in the form of the Creative Commons group. The folks at Creative Commons are worried that too little art is escaping in to the public domain where it can be used freely and are attempting to create alternatives to the ubiquitous copyright notion that keeps anyone from using an artist’s work for what is becoming an increasingly long period of time.1 So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that labeling these folks as communists ruffled a few feathers.

Some of the commentary on the CNET page itself was interesting, some of it vulgar. A lot of posts simply put in that Bill Gates was just ignorant of most of the movement’s real potential; some were far more insulting. One of the “lighter” comments to follow the article was this one from Robert Dean:

“If Bill really believes that the proponents of Intellectual Property Reform are communists, he’s stupid. I don’t believe he’s stupid. I think he wants to protect the revenue stream from Windows Media DRM, so he’s going to disparage anyone who would undermine the need for draconian DRM schemes.”

Day 2

The Meme Goes Graphic By the very next day, some of the larger pundits on the web had begun taking Mr. Gates to task for his statement, including Lawrence Lessig (of Electronic Frontier Foundation fame) who said in his blog entry “what a total (intellectual) disappointment this man is”. BoingBoing, one the first new blogs to gain a large audience, also jumped in and something began to brew when one of BoingBoing’s readers, Matt Bradley said, “Obviously, what we need is a large red flag with a gold copyleft in the upper left, replacing the hammer and sickle.”

So let’s look at the evolution of our meme so far. The copyleft term itself was derived from a series of events beginning with Richard Stallman’s creation of the GNU public license (the first software license to enforce the open source software philosophy) in 1984 and ending with the inclusion of line “Copyleft — all Wrongs reserved” in the code of TinyBasic. Generally it is believed that this is the first occurrence of the meme “copyleft” although there is some dispute. And the meme was applied to the copyright symbol in fairly short order. So while the copyleft meme had been around for a number of years, itself a mutation of the copyright meme, it had yet to be associated with communism in any fashion.

Here now we see a new permutation of the copyleft symbol, namely its incorporation into the flag of the Soviet Union — thus uniting the concept of copyleft with that of history’s most infamous communist organization. But even more permutations followed just the next day — an explosion of concepts not unlike the large and rapid evolutionary changes some times found in the fossil record.2

Other Related Blog Entries: http://www.sweetbirch.com/nucleus/index.php?itemid=91#trackback

Day 3

What’s a Meme Without a T-shirt By Day 3, Ken Mickles of Giant Robot Printing had taken the newly formed meme and emblazoned it on a nice red t-shirt. Other individuals created shirts on Cafepress as well. Today, on Google, the search “‘creative communist’ or ‘creative commie'” returns 1800 results.3 The creative communist meme appears to be spreading quickly. Let’s hope it doesn’t go the way of the XFL.

  1. Many claim that this law was passed at the behest of Disney, who’s famous mouse was about to enter the public domain himself. 

  2. Maybe I’m reaching, but I think the parallel is interesting given that the concept of the meme was invented by an evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins. 

  3. You can get up to a half a million results from Google by not typing the phrase in quotes but this does not ensure that you are receiving pages specifically mentioning the phrase. You are likely also getting search results that are pages that just happen to contain both the words “creative” and “communist”. [2-24-05 update: The number of Google returns has decreased from 1800 to 1700. Could this be an indicator of a meme with a short lifespan?

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