Are Copyrights Killing Creativity?

We live in a country that values intellectual property. Almost obsessively so. According to the law, whenever someone in this great country creates something–a work of fiction, a song, a photograph, whatever–they own exclusive copyrights to it. No paperwork has to be filed (technically), no lawyers have to be hired. You just own the copyright.

We were all taught from a very young age that you don’t “steal” other people’s work. You don’t plagiarize, you cite all of your sources, and you give attributions to photos. And if you do take someone’s song or film and do your own thing with it, you’re labeled a “pirate.” We’ve all been taught the rules and most of us, to some extent, fight for it. It’s in our culture. Shoot, I even published an infographic on how to avoid image copyright violations.

Yet somehow, as we experience an age of digital revolution, copyright laws seem to hold less and less weight. Have you ever created a presentation and ripped a few nice images off the internet to make your PowerPoint look nice? Most of us have…but that’s technically illegal (in most cases). Or, have you shared a photograph on Facebook without asking permission first? Or what about all those YouTube videos and internet memes that blatantly use others’ images, music, and video footage to create their own remix? Are we all a bunch of law-breaking pirates? Or are we just building off of another’s work in the spirit of creative progression?

Many very compelling arguments have been made that most of what we create is just a remixed version of what someone else created in the past. In other words, very little of what’s out there is actually all that original. Watch Kirby Ferguson’s fascinating TED talk where he concludes that Bob Dylan’s music was all just a remix of older stuff and even Steve Jobs’ genius was ripped off from others’ ideas. Ferguson, though, isn’t complaining. He’s suggesting that copyright and intellectual property laws are restricting our creativity. Lawrence Lessig, a copyright guru of our day, agrees. He argues that copyrights are “choking” our creativity.

Graphic designer Chris Coleman recently developed the infographic below (published exclusively on about the history of copyright laws in the United States. The argument built within is fascinating. According to the graphic, which refers to a timeline published by the Association of Research Libraries, there have been more copyright laws passed in the United States in the last 15 years (since 2000) than there have been in the previous 300 combined!

Are we getting too protective of our intellectual property? Is the desire to sue (and fear of being sued) for violations impeding our ability to be a more “free culture” as Lessig has suggested? Are we really restricting our society’s creativity? Or will the digital revolution thrive in spite of copyright law? Look at the graphic below. Watch the videos above. Read Lessig’s Free Culture. What do you think?