Memes, Ideons and the IP Volcano

Back in 2004, when I started blogging, I was working in the field of innovation. Back then, innovation was about introducing new ideas and processes. The ideas didn’t have to be original, just new to those to whine they were being introduced. We talked a lot about knowledge transfer, and the upper echelons of higher education sniffed opportunity, convincing the powers that were to invest in the transfer of knowledge from universities into business rather than from businesses to businesses.

Of course, while academia was focused on how it could make money from these opportunities, I was making it my job to give them away for free or, as was more often the case, to memorise, repeat and perpetuate revolutionary ideas from multiple sources to as wide a local audience as possible.

Often these ideas would be genuine transfers from evidence-based projects scattered across the four corners of the world. Sometimes they would be my own half-arsed meanderings, fuelled by insight, curiosity and not a little mischief. You didn’t have to quote research if you could recall that there had been several anecdotes that needed to be explored, or else you remembered that someone had done some research somewhere, and it was on the tip of your tongue.

I’d been doing it for terms in a creative context, but to have the opportunity in a business one was hard to pass up. Richard Dawkins, in his book The Selfish Gene called it the meme – that self-propagating pattern of information which replicates itself across the minds of billions of people throughout the world – embedding itself as a cultural phenomenon. It might be a tune, a fashion, a process, a habit, or an idea. All knowledge is mimetic, and therefore all ideas will eventually be propagated in some form.

Terry Pratchett, as I mentioned recently on the day he sadly died, called it the ideon, that which floats into your brain, takes a short rest, and then if you have decided not to make use of it floats off to inhabit someone else’s brain. In referencing it out of context, my words – particularly those suggesting that I had had, and failed to use, ideas which Pratchett himself made better use of – were mistaken by one person as hubris or arrogance, but nothing could have been further from the truth. Some of us are lucky enough to be ideon magnets, pulling these great ideas in from the wider memesphere and maybe even, on rare occasions, making use of them (Since my original blog I’ve been able to use far more than I used to, but still not enough). Sadly, far too many of the ideons which had inhabited my brain upped and left for pastures new long before I was able to fully realize the benefits.

My first ideons were role-playing memes. One can never truly say that they were “the first” or “the inventor” of an idea, but in my time I invented and even designed/wrote many games which drifted off to become someone else’s brainchild. In particular, I remember creating a car-combat game loosely based on Death Race 2000 (suggesting, of course, that Ib Melchior was visited by these particular ideons first) a good three years before a near-identical game-system called Car Wars was launched by Steve Jackson Games. This, along with another meme which drifted over from the Mad Max films, doubtless inspired the Games Workshop Dark Future Universe, and in the age of computer games this inspired the Carmageddon computer game which, in a strange twist of fate, then benefitted from its creators acquiring the Death Race franchise! Obviously, that particular example of memetics involved me getting infected rather than the other way around. The game I wrote and designed was never shared (or even play-tested), so I was not responsible for any propagation into the wider world whatsoever.

A harder one is the chaos-death-spiky-meme. Inspired by Michael Moorcock’s Elric and the Stormbringer RPG (yet again I was inheriting ideons), I decided to update Stormbringer into science fantasy setting, replacing Moorcock’s Young Kingdoms with a Galactic Empire in which the Mabden, Eldren and Dwarves battled the encroaching forces of the Gods of Chaos who spread across the galaxy in the name of Lord Arioch. In this case I did indeed tour the gaming circuit, going from convention to convention passing on by word of mouth my experiences with the campaign that I had somewhat prophetically called ‘Stormbringer 80,000’.

I can even recall my conversation with a Games Workshop employee I can only imagine was Rick Priestley, who was spreading the meme of his own game, Rogue Trader. I believe that was the day the chaos-death-spiky-meme floated over (or perhaps just travelled via sound waves) to Rick, whose Warhammer 40K has proved to be one of the most successful wargame brands on the planet.

Needless to say, I spent a little time wandering around moaning lots about how my idea had been pinched (it hadn’t – i had given it away freely) but then I remembered that you couldn’t copyright ideas, and that the only way to stem the tide of ideon leakage was (shock! horror!) not to communicate.

Drifting away from role-playing games, I knuckled down to have a go at writing. I plotted out my first so-great-it will-fly-from-the-shelves debut comedy novel, Flloyd – The Musical.

Flloyd was a story about rock-and-roll, Norse mythology, and the rapid pace of technological change. It had seminal sequences involving a DC-Dakota landing on a rainbow, valkyries on motorbikes, and a bus-full of Norse Gods on a day-trip to Midgaard. Flloyd himself was the Norse God of the Twentieth Century, and looked a lot like Captain Sensible. At some point between completing my synopsis and completing Chapter One, I discovered the works of Tom Holt. That should have spurred me on to make use of my Ideons before they left me, but…

Bugger.

All I can say is that Tom used concepts that were just like mine and used them in a different way. Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? Was very similar, but also very different, to why I would have written.

Then I shifted to Doctor Who fiction. The chalice of unsolicited submissions, the wealth of continuity to dip and mix with was irresistible. Eighteen chapter ones and three years later I had succeeded in writing/editing close to 200 Doctor Who fanzines (only 200? I’ve been telling people 300? Oh, how the memory cheats!), inspired (and wrote the very first submission for) the Doctor Who Drabble Project (see Drabble Who?), and influenced – through conversations, debates and drinking sessions – as many as eight published Doctor Who novels, none of which were written by me. Indeed one of my greatest pleasures in the days before Doctor Who returned to our screens was to read new ‘Who’ fiction and see how many of my ideons ended up in other writers’ heads without me even communicating with them.

Then, in 2005, I wrote a Doctor Who novel as a dare. Not only did some of its plot end up in an audio drama not of my making, but it also shared some amazingly cool similarities to the TV episode The Impossible Planet. Then again, in my Doctor Who anthology, Shelf Life, I co-authored a story (Jumping the Shark) with equally strong similarities to Neil Gaiman’s first foray into official Whodom, The Doctor’s Wife.

These things happen. They really do.

This brings me to Douglas Adams, who once pointed out that Intellectual Property and Copyright only emerged as a response to linear media such as books, films or TV, which are only capable of communicating in one direction. He also said that before television came along the word interactive didn’t exist, because it wasn’t needed. Adams’ point was that the internet, as an interactive environment, would make the issue of ownership redundant. It isn’t what you create that matters, but what you do with it.

And he wasn’t wrong.

The IP Volcano

Trying to protect ideas is, frankly, a pointless exercise. You can post it to yourself in a sealed envelope if you like, but it won’t stop the meme from spreading. And using the law to ‘protect’ your ideas is merely a means of stifling the others ideas that may come along because it has been shared and slowed to mutate.

If one idea is equal to six months of legal activity, then you become limited to only handling two ideas in a given year. I had – and still have – a problem with this, because I usually have at least three new ideas between getting out of bed and having my breakfast.

I would contend that it is better to let the ideas flow. Have lots of them. Write them down, talk about them, tell people how they can change the world. If they steal your idea and do something good with it well, so what? It’s one less idea you have to worry about using, and if it succeeds it means that you have had a positive influence, made a difference.

Whenever someone does intentionally beg, steal or borrow an idea of mine with the goal of making money from it (and they have), then I try (I’m only human, I sometimes fail) to just shrug my shoulders and cross it off the list of ideas I need to do something about, and feel proud that I have achieved something for nothing.

Another good thing about having lots of ideas – and not protecting them – is that ideas beget ideas. A creative environment not bound by petty legalities or corporate bureaucracies will attract the kind of people hungry to make a difference themselves, people who will bring new ideas with them, and even more new ideas will spawn as a result. It is how the industrial revolution happened; and Hollywood; and Silicon Valley.

I call it, for obvious reasons, the IP volcano. That small trickle of unfettered ideas overspill and spread while all the new ideas bubbling at source exert a kind of… memetic pressure which will result in an explosion of ideas.

It doesn’t matter what these ideas might relate to – creativity, industry, politics, society – what matters is that they happen. Rules, protectionism and isolation stifle ideation and innovation. But if people are free to think, They they shall come…

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RIP Sir Terry

SirTerry

SIR TERRY PRATCHETT 1948-2015

Back before I started writing other fiction I was writing fantasy comedy. An avid fan of Douglas Adams in the wake of the Hitchhikers’ Guide radio series, I wanted nothing better than to write as well as he did. My pastiches were pretty good, to the point where I could write an article from the Guide and be accused of theft by anyone who read it! Then DNA’s books became fewer and farther between, and Terry Pratchett rose to prominence. I remember the many arguments I had thinking Adams was unsurpassable despite refusing to read The Colour of Magic (just in case it turned out to be better). Eventually the sheer weight of Terry’s output brushed Adams aside, and my writerly frustrations turned towards the fantasy market.

Every story or idea I came up with back then ended up in a book by Tom Holt or Sir Terry, usually a good year or so after I had conceived it. There was the story about the Norse Gods returning to Earth in search of the god of the 20th Century (yeah, Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? did that one better). Then there was the story where I based the Angel of Death on the fanatical Major Neuheim from Private Schultz (as played by Ian Richardson), then along came Mort and with a big sigh I had to return to the drawing board. Another of my ideas turned up in an Andrew Harman book (but I later found that Robert Rankin had beaten both of us to it! I won’t even mention Moses the Musical!), and then another of my ideas turned up, I think, as a footnote in Pyramids. Eventually, in 1999, when the millennium novel was writing remained unfinished by the time of the millennium, I gave up on dreams of writing genre comedy altogether.

The sad truth is that writers have ideas, and they don’t use them all, or else they spend too much time trying to use them, only to discover that “Bum! Someone else had the same idea and they used it SUCCESSFULLY!”. I am told that Sir Terry blamed this phenomenon on stray ideon particles visiting me and not being used quickly enough. His loss is a great tragedy, and (because I avoided reading them for so long) I have a lot of books to catch up on.

Those that know me are well aware that I have ideas tumbling out of every orifice. Like the human brain I use less than 10% of them. It’s been a while since I properly returned to the comedy genre. I’ve been thinking about it for a while, but the  scary shadow that Adams and Pratchett over the genres that they had shaped were pretty big. Many writers – Andrew Harman again springs to mind – tried to succeed in it, but the bar was set so high, and the challenge so great,that they didn’t last long. I certainly decided to leave well alone – that kind of thing is absolutely what I grew up wanting to write, but I just dared not.

Maybe, instead of avoiding the genre because of these giants, I might delve back into it in Sir Terry’s memory.

“Enter freely, and of your own will…”

“…and leave behind a little of the happiness that you bring.”

Lovely sentiment.

Wasted on the lips of Count Dracula though.

My name is not Metabaronic, but Adrian Middleton, and this, for better or for worse, is my blog.

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