Each represents an idea that has challenged mainstream thinking.

The trash can on our computer desktop is familiar to us all and represents just part of an idea to make computers intuitive to use. Apple Computing perfected this idea but was not the first to come up with it.

The Sydney Opera House was a radical idea for a building that pushed the boundaries in what it is possible to build. It heralded a new approach to using computer analysis in the design, planning and construction of modern buildings.

The idea of baking a cake and giving it to a complete stranger was the brainchild of Bill Drummond, former frontman of the KLF and manager of Echo and the Bunnymen. You might think this idea is unworthy of being included in the same list as the Apple GUI and the Sydney Opera House. However, I have included it because it takes the tradition of baking a cake and sharing it with friends and turns this idea into something quite radical (the act of sharing cake with a stranger). According to Drummond, changing the context leads to a very different perception of the idea. An act of friendship (sharing a home-baked cake) is treated with suspicion, indeed confrontation, when delivered to the door of a complete stranger.

This cake idea illustrates how ideas may thrive or fail in context. While there is much discussion about valuing innovation and fostering creativity, we can lose sight of the role that context plays. This is where laws and policy can have real impact.

The rationale of intellectual property laws is to foster creativity by rewarding creative endeavour with exclusive rights and protections. The difficult balance is between giving protection to one creator while still allowing freedom for others to rely on that creator’s efforts to create something new.

The Prince v. Cariou case currently on appeal in the US shows how difficult this balance can be to find. The case centres around the practice of ‘appropriating’ from other artists and involves the work of high-profile artist Richard Prince.

Under US laws, a work that embodies elements of an original work but that results in the creation of a new (original work) in its own right may constitute a “fair use” exemption to copyright infringement as a “transformative use”. Prince was held by the US District Court in New York to have infringed the copyright of Patrick Cariou by appropriating several Cariou photos for his ‘Canal Zone’ series of images/paintings. There is concern that the Prince decision will have a chilling effect on creativity, given the long and important tradition of ‘borrowing’ or taking inspiration from others.

Interestingly, this “transformative use” exemption is not available under Australian copyright laws. The only “fair dealing” exemptions in Australia are if you use copyright material for research or study, criticism or review, parody or satire, or for the purpose of reporting news.

If you use copyright material for any other purpose without permission, this constitutes infringement. There is no “fair use” exemption for artistic purposes. As a result, Australian copyright laws are much more restrictive than US laws regarding appropriating from copyright works.

This paved the way for the 2011 decision of the Federal Court of Australia in EMI Music v. Larrikin Music, which held that a 1979 recording of the iconic song ‘Down Under’ by Men at Work infringed a 1934 folk song ‘Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree’ (Kookaburra). The fact that both were iconic works in their own right and that decades had passed before the offending riff was even recognised as a potential infringement has raised questions about the decision.

These cases illustrate that where you are in the world and the environment around you can have a dramatic effect on your ability to take an idea and to breathe life into it. Context matters.

According to Malcolm Gladwell, the ability to bring together ideas is the quality of genius, not the ability to come up with new ideas. This is because there seem to be ideas ‘in the air’, being worked on independently by different people at the same time. Who gets over the line first to execute the idea may not be the person credited with the idea – the person who takes the idea further or executes it best.

There is little doubt that Steve Jobs was a creative genius. Many believe that his genius lay in his ability to edit the good from the bad, to join the dots, to connect ideas and bring together the right resources to execute an idea, and then to persuade the masses. He created the context required to execute the idea.

To quote from author Roddy Doyle at the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival: “There is no shortage of ideas, ideas are everywhere. It’s what you do with the idea to transform it that makes it interesting.” 

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