I’ve been traveling quite a bit lately in order to give talks about the fashion industry and it’s unique remix culture. I had a lot of fun at the Free Culture Conference at New York University last weekend. I was on a terrific panel with two women who are exploring fashion’s free culture from some pretty surprising angles. Lana Swartz is a PhD candidate at USC right now, but her master’s thesis at MIT was about tight-knit, counterfeit luxury fashion communities online. Lana raised some marvelous questions about “fakeness” in fashion and brought to light a fascinating community of fashion obsessives who know so much about the originals they fake, that their copies may (arguably) feel more authentic than the real thing.
It was a great pleasure to meet Nora Abousteit, who spoke about the evolution of BurdaStyle, a very successful “open source” online pattern sharing community. I was especially interested to hear her story because I had read a few articles about the false copyright claims that commercial pattern makers have long made. “End users” — sewers — are frequently warned that they may not make for commercial production any garments based upon the patterns they’ve purchased because those patterns are copyright protected. But if you look at the court records, there seem to be no cases of this sort that have been pressed. Why?
Because patterns, just like garments, are considered “useful articles” by the courts and therefore are not protected by copyright.
So why would sewers need an open source pattern sharing community if patterns aren’t copyright protected? Well, for one thing, copyright is not the only barrier to be breached. By sharing iterative patterns and methods of customization, BurdaStyle allows individual sewers to save a lot of time and to tap into a rich treasure trove of data and shared expertise. Suddenly, sewing at home alone doesn’t sound so lonely.
I also traveled to Indiana University in Bloomington to participate in an event sponsored by the Provost and her “Initiative on the Humanistic Study of Innovation.” Here’s a an awesome poster about the event, and here’s a description of this unique initiative:
. . . the humanities have always played a crucial role in fostering creativity by challenging and proposing alternatives to current norms and conventional wisdom, and through this critical thought to help reframe the questions that novelty seeks to answer. In this project we deploy the tools of historical and cultural analysis to investigate the narratives, history, and language of innovation in order to better understand the social forces that enable and impede the recognition and implementation of new ideas. [my emphasis]
Ahhhh! What a breath of fresh air! Innovation is all around us, but unless we’ve the eyes to see it, it’s as if it’s not happening at all. How do we train ourselves to see the stuff that will radically change (and hopefully) improve our world? Well, critical thinking is obviously crucial to a fresh perspective, and coursework in the humanities is pretty good at honing those types of skills. But we’ll also benefit from some knowledge about what came before. In our daily battle to keep on top of each new technological and cultural innovation, it’s so easy to lose the much broader historical perspective (what would a medievalist, for instance, have to say about the adoption of the iPad?) and to forget that the newness that seduces us is probably not unrelated to the novelty that captured the attention of our cave-dwelling ancestors. What critical questions were they asking when fire singed their meat? As we watch the Internet transform newspapers, music, law, social behavior, diplomacy, political discourse (you name it), let’s hope we’ve learned enough to ask some really clever questions.