Working for a minor league baseball team, we are always striving to come up with the next big idea to blow our fans away and possibly garner national media attention. It’s a business that survives by being relevant and unique from all of the other entertainment options in town. When we dig through the piles of abstract thoughts our staff generates during offseason brainstorming sessions and strike a nugget of a golden idea, we begin shaping it, crafting a refined vision out of the raw material. By the time the idea is released to the press, its original source is long lost—no one remembers who came up with it and everyone had a hand in its development. In the end all that matters is the idea itself and its effects on the world. (Take the jump to read on.)
However, in a world of copyright and plagiarism my view seems to beg the question, does authorship matter? And if so, what are we to make of it? When you think about the tech giant of our age, Facebook, the answer seems apparent: when it comes to Mark Zuckerberg’s bank account, authorship matters billions and billions of times. But doesn’t this short-change the team of developers that have helped Facebook remain functional and have continually redefined its capabilities? Don’t they have as much authorship since they are the ones writing the code? It really makes you wonder how many great ideas are attributed to a single person, but were executed by a number of other people.
Thomas Edison is the most storied inventor in American history with 1,093 US patents for his inventions. We like to think of inventors like Edison alone in a dimly lit workshop in the dead of night, toiling over an intricate mechanical construction. In reality, Edison commissioned entire teams to make his ideas reality. On the verge of the 20th century, a French-born Anglo-Scotsman by the name of William Kennedy Dickson was hired by Edison to make a motion picture camera. Dickson’s creations, the Kinetograph (a motion picture camera) and the Kinetoscope (a motion picture exhibition device), fulfilled Edison’s wishes, but after completing the project successfully and suggesting to Edison that the next step was create a full on motion picture projector, Dickson was fired and Edison’s name remained on the inventions.
The problem of authorship just presented itself again to me in the form of a TED Talk on the development of a new kind of mega battery used to make renewable energy sources more practical. Professor Donald Sadoway out of MIT came up with a brilliant solution to the storage problem facing wind and solar energy and set out to make this idea a reality. He enlisted the services of post-docs and graduate students looking to earn their PhD with this amazing project, found seed money through MIT and began research and development on a liquid metal battery. Watch the episode for the details as I’m but a lowly English major, who doesn’t like to pose as a scientific expert.
What I found strange about the TED Talk was the fact that Prof. Sadoway continually said, “I created” and “I made” rather than including his team, who he mentions quite a lot. On the one hand he is acknowledging their contributions to the project, while on the other he is claiming sole ownership of the creation. It brings up the question, how are we to decide who the true creator is? We can argue back and forth about whether the students or the professor are co-authors or sole authors of this idea, but maybe this is the wrong question to be focusing on.
Perhaps we should be asking if the idea independent of its creators is of significance. While it’s great to feel pride in creating something (which is why I and many others love brewing beer), we are simply a means to an end. It’s the Facebook/Motion Picture Camera/Battery/Beer that is really what changes the world in a fundamental way, not our individual selves. If we look at it this way, we are reveling in awe of the product contributing to society and in the achievements of humanity. It’s a shared sense of pride, which I believe does more to bring people together in a fundamentally beautiful and important way.
My professor, Tim Allen, said in his last lecture of the semester that he cried the first time he saw a picture of Earth from space. They were tears of shared revelry, tears of new perspective, and the author was no where to be found.
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