Rediscovering Cumulative Creativity from the Oral Formulaic Tradition to Digital Remix: Can I Get a Witness?

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For most of human history, the essential nature of creativity was understood to be cumulative and collective. This notion has been largely forgotten by modern policies that regulate creativity and speech. As hard as it may be to believe, the most valuable components of our immortal culture were created under a fully open regime with regard to access to pre-existing expressions and reuse. From the Platonic mimesis to Shakespeare’s “borrowed feathers,” the largest part of our culture has been produced under a paradigm in which imitation—even plagiarism—and social authorship formed constitutive elements of the creative moment. Pre-modern creativity spread from a continuous line of re-use and juxtaposition of pre-existing expressive content, transitioning from orality to textuality and then melding the two traditions. The cumulative and collaborative character of the oral formulaic tradition dominated the development of epic literature. The literary pillars of Western culture, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were fully forged in the furnace of that tradition. Later, under the aegis of Macrobius’ art of rewriting and the Latin principles of imitatio, medieval epics grew out of similar dynamics of sharing and recombination of formulas and traditional patterns. Continuations, free re-use, and the re-modeling of iconic figures and characters, such as King Arthur and Roland, made chansons de geste and romance literature powerful vehicles in propelling cross-country circulation of culture. The parallelism between past and present highlights the incapacity of the present copyright system to recreate the cumulative and collaborative creative process that proved so fruitful in the past. In particular, the constant development and recursive use of iconic characters, which served as an engine for creativity in epic literature, is but a fading memory. This is because our policies for creativity are engineered in a fashion that stymies the re-use of information and knowledge, rather than facilitating it. Under the current regime, intellectual works are supposedly created as perfect, self-sustaining artifacts from the moment of their creation. Any modifications, derivations, and cumulative additions must secure preventive approval and must be paid off, as if they were nuisances to society. Rereading the history of aesthetics is particularly inspiring at the dawn of the networked age. The dynamics of sharing of pre-modern creativity parallel the features of digital networked creativity. As in the oral-formulaic tradition, digital creativity reconnects its exponential generative capacity to the ubiquity of participatory contributions. Additionally, the formula—the single unit to be used and reused, worked and re-worked—is the building block of the remix culture as well as the oral formulaic tradition. Today, in an era of networked mass collaboration, ubiquitous online fan communities, user-based creativity, digital memes, and remix culture, the enclosure of knowledge brought about by an ever-expanding copyright paradigm is felt with renewed intensity. Therefore, I suggest that the communal, cumulative, social and collaborative nature of creativity and authorship should be rediscovered and should drive our policies. In order to plead my case, I have asked for the support of the most unexpected witnesses.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)341-395
JournalJohn Marshall Review of Intellectual Property Law
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • creativity, policy, history, law, copyright, intellectual property


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