Although still somewhat rare, just recently I have had two separate clients present me with legal documents and contracts to sign after I thought the negotiating part of my work was complete (by which I mean after I had presented my final, revised quotes to them for the work to be done). As I said, this is quite rare, and greatly affects the time and effort I need to put into their projects outside the quote itself. I suppose that henceforth I will need to include clauses in my quotes about hourly attorney’s fees if this sort of thing is to continue, because I never accounted for that, and never want to account for that. Part of the reason I enjoy working with small clients is the dispensing of what I consider unnecessary bullshit. I want to spend all my time on the work itself, and not on evaluating the legalese in various documents pertaining to who “owns” what intelectual property. Part of the reason I am such a fan of open source software is that it is not “owned” by anyone. Everyone is free to look at the code, or modify it to suit. What I make for the vast majority of clients is an arrangement (of code) that they are free to use and rework any way they want. To ask me to transfer “ownership” of any and all work I have done for them defies common sense (but apparently not over zealous legal sense), and represents a dangerous corruption and encroachment on my services by the overabundance of lawyers and litigation in this country. While large companies do create and hold secret large amounts of customized software, the nature of web design and coding today makes this idea quite laughable for a number of reasons:
1. Although much of the executable server side of things remain hidden, anyone in any browser can substantially look at the source of any web page and copy its formatting at least. Indeed this is how I and many programmers and web designers first learn how to do specific things, by looking at the work of others.
2. The vast majority of websites today are running at least partially on open source software, without which they would not be able to exist. Whether it is the webserving software itself, or the underlying content management system, or the plugins that further enhance that system, people would not be able to conduct business without it.
3. Enforcement of an ownership claim is very costly and almost always amounts to nothing. The only people getting rich off of going after perceived infringements are lawyers, except in very large cases. The web has almost no examples of such large cases.
What I am getting at here is the ridiculousness of trying to “own” intangible things like a web design. They should be thought of more like a service one has free use of, or a style of dress that one is wearing. People may very well like your style of dress and try to emulate it. Consider it flattery, not stealing. Kirby Ferguson, one of my heroes, makes points about the nature of creativity far more eloquently than I, and his recent TED talk here is well worth watching:
Kirby’s basic thesis is that all creativity has its roots in copying work that came before it, and that current patent and copyright law is antithetical to this basic premise. Despite being there to “promote the progress of useful arts” patent law as understood (and litigated) today, works precisely against this. The sooner we get over our loss aversion, the better we as a society will be.
So I guess you could say that in certain cases (such as web design) I don’t believe in ownership, which I suppose makes me a little bit of a communist in some people’s eyes. I believe in free use, because I have seen first hand, over and over again, how valuable open source software can be in building a better world. I, and many other people around the world gain great uses and owe a large part of our livelihoods to this, and when I donate back to the greater good with contributions of my own, I feel even better.
I am currently working on the archive site of deceased filmmaker (my friend Andrew in fact), and as I have been uploading his films to YouTube for embedding, I have noticed some very strange automated censorship at work:
With a number of the films, it appears that YouTube has some fairly sophisticated content scanning happening. So, for instance if it detects some song playing in the background of a scene, it will notify you that you may be in violation of copyright or something similar. In some cases, they will actually block your video automatically with a claim from some large company (in my case it was EMI), effectively judging you guilty of violation first, and making you prove your innocence to them to get it unblocked. WTF, who needs SOPA if private companies will censor for you? And it is always the huge corporations that have the power here, YouTube won’t be blocking and filtering just anyone’s content.
We have a big big problem with copyright and patent law run amok. Fair use is practically non existant, and shrinking more every day. The original intent of laws to protect copyright were limited and in the common interest. Not so any more, we are destroying our culture’s ability to create, which is always based on prior work and its appropriation and reinterpretation. Without free creative reign, our culture is weakened and stagnant. While a few people get very rich, the rest of us get screwed.
A guy named Kirby Ferguson deals with these issues clearly and eloquently in his excellent series, “Everything is a Remix“, I highly recommend watching all four parts (but if you watch only one, please see part 4 as it really brings it all home).
I very often have people tell me that they could never be freelance like me, and that I clearly have a great deal of discipline to be able to sit at home and actually get work done (as opposed to, say, hunkering down in front of the TV with a container of ice cream leafing through glossy glam magazines). And it is true that for whatever reason, I don’t find it difficult to focus on my work. That is not to say that I don’t get creatively stuck, I do. But I simply move on to another project while my subconscious comes up with a plan, and then I return to it. I don’t waste a lot of time when working on things that have to be done. Sometimes I will take time out from direct work to learn about some new technique or design strategy, but even these are really in the service of my work and becoming better at it, and they usually relate to a current project. I remember many years ago (long about 1999), when I had my first experience with freelancing. I was an almost total failure at it, and this was largely due to my inability to stay focused on the task at hand. Back then, I never missed an opportunity to leave my workstation, and I had a great deal of trouble getting motivated to do my work, even though I had just as much economic incentive (the need to eat and pay rent) to do so as I do today.
I have often thought about why things are so much different today. What has changed in the intervening years that allows me to be so much more motivated and productive? I have a number of theories:
1. Age – The mere fact of getting older has changed the way I view a lot of things in the world, and in some unexpected ways has made me more focused and disciplined. Being more at ease with the general flow of life has helped to not always jump at every distraction.
2. Deeper knowledge – Interestingly, the more I learn about the areas of my work, and the better I get at making things, the easier it is to stay focused on them. I think this is easily as important (if not more) than number one above (age). The more I am able to express my creativity with the tools at my disposal, the less likely I am to become blocked and give up in frustration. The combination of better tools to do my job (constantly improving technology) and the greater experience I have with those tools keeps me much more engaged. It is the case that the distance between what I can conceive in my mind and what I can realize in my work or personal projects is shrinking with each passing day. This is highly motivating.
I am incredibly lucky I was not born 40 years earlier. I would have been trapped in a world very much at odds with my personality type. I could never have been someone who worked at the same job for 40 years at the same place. The skills that I use and the things that I excel at would have been mostly useless back then. Or at least they would have gone unrecognized, and I would not have had the same opportunities to chart my own course. Not only because of technologies (like the internet) but because of the more rigid social structures I would have found myself in. The globe-trotting, career-changing, self-taught person I am would not have been able to exist unless I had been given some very large trust fund.
Ultimately, I think the key to unlocking everyone’s potential lies in shortening the distance between what they can conceive of and what they can realize. There are many ways to do this, but they involve a huge array of changes in cultural norms, societal structures, and tools and technologies. Many of these are underway, and many seem hopelessly stuck and unmovable. But it is so worthwhile to push ourselves and our world in this direction, because in unlocking people’s creative potential, we open doors to their happiness.